To a Toddler Sharing is a 4 Letter Word~MINE!
[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood also now available on Amazon]
Almost from the moment a baby is born, parents teach them not to share. “No, no, sweetie. That’s mommy’s” and “That’s daddy’s, not yours” accompanied by the removal of whatever the forbidden item is are daily realities for little ones. This is unavoidable, of course, since bacteria-ridden keys don’t belong in little mouths and iphones don’t work well when soaked in drool.
But the challenge comes when our little ‘reflectors’ are expected to share their toys with anyone and everyone who takes a liking to them. (Keep in mind that “their toys” as defined by a toddler are anything they own, are playing with, want to play with, don’t want to play with but want to remain available, etc.) It’s fully acceptable for us adults to not share our ‘toys’ with others, though. How often do we invite friends over and hand them the keys to our car? And yet we get to choose our own friends, do the inviting, and we have adult reasoning skills and judgment in place…things small children don’t have control over or access to!
The primary learning mode for little ones is imitation, but still we expect them to somehow have the cognitive maturity to learn to share despite their parents not sharing their ‘toys’ with them and despite seeing their parents not sharing their ‘toys’ with their own friends.
On top of that, we’re expecting them to grasp some pretty intricate and tricky relational nuances. What does ‘being a good friend’ entail? Why is someone taking something I want an acceptable part of friendship? If they can take what I want, why can’t I take what they want?
And, to round off the difficulty, ownership is an advanced, abstract concept and sharing is even more so. The difference between sharing and giving away forever or between someone borrowing your things and someone stealing from you is rather nebulous in the mind of a child. Now add in a complete inability to grasp time concepts (They get my toy for a minute? How long is a minute? When mommy tells me ‘just a minute’ when she’s on the phone it seems like forever before she’s done!) and to understand other abstract concepts such as permanence, and you can see the murky waters tiny people are expected to navigate when it comes to understanding sharing!
Obviously, little ones need help overcoming all of these obstacles. Punishing them, calling them selfish brats, forcing them to share, etc. are all counterproductive, not to mention damaging to the very relationship that is pivotal to eventual understanding of the concept of sharing. Going back to that primary learning mode of imitation, the key to teaching a child to share lies in the trust relationship being built by gentle, responsive parenting:
1.) When a child is secure in their relationship with their parents, when they know they will be heard, when they trust that their needs will be met quickly and consistently, much of the impetus behind the refusal to share is removed simply because the child isn’t living in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ response. (This is not to say they will share freely, no matter how gentle the parenting. The afore mentioned obstacles are still in play, and your little ones are still human. What it does mean is that some of the impediments to sharing are removed and the stage is set for learning.)
2.) Within the context of the parent/child relationship, be mindful of how often you say ‘no’ or ‘mine’ and try to offer alternatives in the moment to model sharing.
3.) Be aware of the fact that your child isn’t choosing their own friends at this point and neither they nor their little playmates are skilled socially yet. Stay nearby and in tune with your little one so you can step in and help them deal with any sharing difficulties such as snatching or tug-o-war with a toy before they escalate.
4.) Use concrete words to guide your little one in social situations. For example, try “Use your gentle hands” instead of “Don’t snatch/hit/push.”
5.) Resist the embarrassed-adult-knee-jerk-reaction of scolding your child, snatching toys from them to give to another child, and punishing your child for a normal developmental stage. That kind of reaction not only doesn’t model self-control, but it also doesn’t model acceptable social behavior, which is exactly what you’re upset about your child not displaying!
6.) Prepare for playdates by putting away any treasured toys such as special lovies or new toys that you know your little one will have trouble sharing. Honoring their feelings about these few special things will help them to feel more comfortable sharing their other toys because you are showing them in a concrete manner that you will help them to protect and preserve the things that matter to them.
7.) Play sharing games with your child daily to practice this advanced skill. When she says “Mine!” respond by smiling, picking up something of yours you don’t mind her playing with, and saying, “This is mine. I’ll share!” and hand it to her. Often little ones will start running around picking up their toys and bringing them to you to ‘share’ and wait for it to be reciprocated, resulting in a back and forth, back and forth sharing game that taps into another excellent learning mode for children…play!
Above all, keep in mind that sharing is a learned skill and it will take time for your small one to grow into a socially skilled little butterfly. Creating an atmosphere of trust, modeling sharing, and honoring their feelings will surround them with a safe environment in which they can develop the skills needed to become the most treasured of friends!
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.