We often worry that our child’s difficulty with sharing means they will grow into selfish adults or even that it is a reflection on our parenting skills. However, it’s important to remember that a toddler’s possessiveness and focus on “mine” is a normal and developmentally appropriate phase that will pass.
My philosophy, for the most part, is provided no one is getting hurt to let children work things out themselves. Magda Gerber (the founder of RIE) talks about how these struggles are a great learning opportunity.
“The importance of the experience is learning how to resolve the problem. Yet, when we see children trying to solve a problem, by intervening, we don’t let them.”
With toddlers, when we talk about sharing, what we’re usually talking about is turn-taking. Taking turns involves waiting while someone else uses the exact object you want to use. This is a difficult task, one that even adults struggle with. Children may be cognitively and developmentally ready to start taking turns at around 2 years old. Even then, they will almost always need to be supported and guided by an adult.
Toddlers find it particularly difficult to take turns with an activity as they are generally working on a specific activity in order to master it. If another child interferes, they are then unable to finish their work.
Children must practice taking turns with an adult's help for a long time before they are ready to share. Adults often expect children to be able to share well before they are capable of doing so. For children the idea of sharing feels arbitrary: Why do we take turns with certain objects and not others? Why do I have to do this at all?
Children must master turn-taking long before sharing is possible. Sharing is a complex and collaborative process, typically involving a common goal, and comes later, not at least until 4-years-old.
This information is useful but not always practical. For example, how do I manage other parents’ expectations? What do I do if my child becomes aggressive?
TROUBLESHOOTING & FAQs
What if my child is aggressive? First empathise with them “It really looks like you want to play with the trucks.” Then I explain that we take turns, “Jenny is having a turn at the moment. They’ll be ready soon.” Then wait with, or stay close to your child. While waiting you can offer alternatives, “would you like to watch or would you like to find something else to play with in the meantime?”
What if my child upsets another child?
If you own child is also upset, wait with them until they have calmed down. Then help them make amends with the other child, for example, returning the toy or if the other child is upset to get a tissue for them. Make sure to talk about what and why the other child is feeling, “Oscar is upset because you took his toy from him. That made him sad and now he is crying. What can we do to make him feel better?”.
What if my child is being overpowered?
Teach your child to be assertive. I like to teach them to stand up for themselves. “You can tell Nicole that it’s your turn and she can have it soon.” If this is happening in a public space you can say to the other child, “It looks like you’d like a turn. You can have a turn when Jack is all done.” Then they (and their parent) knows that you are not just being rude but allowing your child to finish.
How do I manage other parents with this approach?
I find that communicating my intentions out loud, while talking to you child, helps other parents understand my plan. For example, if your child and another are having difficulty taking turns I talk to my child saying, “Hmm, there are two children but only one ball, this is a tricky problem, I wonder how you’re both going to figure it out.” I then make sure to stay nearby so the other parent knows I’m on top of it and actively monitoring, rather than being absent or apathetic.
If I know the other parent, or am confident enough, I will ask them “Do you want me to stop struggles immediately, or give them a chance to work things out?” If the other parent prefers intervention and my child is the instigator, I gently prevent my child from taking a toy, or ask my child if he can give the toy back himself or needs my help.
I think it’s important that we protect our children from being perceived by others as overbearing or bullies. It’s also important that we protect our children from BEING bullies or overbearing. In this situations it’s important to intervene early and ensure our child is not actively interrupting or disrupting other children’s play. In these cases, more active turn-taking and equipment sharing is important.
References: Handlon & Gross 1959; Brownell et al 2009