Three things to remember from a developmental standpoint:
1. Young children are naturally ego-centric.
They see the whole world through the lens of their own wants and desires. Giving something up because it makes someone else happy requires a very big mental leap. This means that we have to gently teach them over and over to recognize and value the feelings of others.
2. Young children are naturally seeking power.
It’s a motivating source that allows them to learn and become more proficient and independent. If sharing is presented to them as a loss of power (“You must give something up“) rather than as an opportunity to be powerful (“You can choose what or when to share”/”You can help someone be very happy“), they will naturally resist. Help children recognize the power in sharing.
3. Social skills are learned.
As is the case with social skills in general, children don’t naturally develop the ability to share. Just as they don’t wake up one day knowing how to write their own name, they won’t suddenly be able to navigate the social art of sharing on their third birthday. Be aware that sharing requires practice, which always includes mistakes along with the successes.
So how can you teach your child to share?
Here are a few approaches:
Give your child plenty of opportunities to share neutral items.
Sharing your favorite toy is much harder than picking out a treat at the store with the express purpose of sharing it with friends or having a cousin over to play with a sprinkler you can enjoy together. Give your child plenty of positive experiences sharing with others. Call attention to their efforts and the happiness it has brought to others, as well as the happiness they feel themselves.
Play turn-taking games.
When you play simple games like duck-duck-goose, your child practices turn-taking. She begins to realize that even though it isn’t her turn now, she will get a turn. It helps her to regulate and control impulses, to delay gratification, and to recognize the need for others to have a chance as well.
Teach social scripts for sharing.
Young children are still developing their language centers and often lack the verbal proficiency required to negotiate with their peers. It is much less laborious to simply connect impulse to action and make a grab for it! Teach your children specific scripts they can fall back on when they want to share. Teach these scripts in role-playing situations where the grounds are neutral and emotions are calm. Remind children of these exact scripts in play situations to call their minds back to that learning session.
One script I have had success with is, “Can I have a turn when you’re done, please?” This one works well because it communicates to the child in possession of the coveted item that sharing doesn’t mean giving it up right away. It gives them the courtesy of finishing, and the power to decide when that is. It is much less threatening than abruptly being asked to give something up. Secondly, this script lets the child that is asking know that he/she will need to wait a moment.
The funny thing is, many times when I’ve coached children through this script, the child with the toy (who not two minutes earlier was tenaciously gripping the item in a tug-of-war) decides he is done within a matter of seconds. The difference is, it was on his own terms.
Teach the art of the trade
For some children, when they are asked to share, all they see is what they have lost. They grip that item like a lifeline, not only because they don’t want to give up the toy, but because they don’t want to give up the power it represents. In these situations, it is helpful if children now how to negotiate a trade.
As with other social practice, the key is to remember this is a skill you want your children to be able to eventually use independently. Try not to swoop in and negotiate the trade yourself. Guide, prompt, and redirect if it fails, but avoid taking over.
Don’t underestimate the power of your influence. As parents and educators, we are instrumental in the social development of little ones. Find plenty of opportunities to model sharing, talk about sharing, and to compliment your children as they make progress along the way. Sharing may not come naturally to most children, but with your help they’ll master this childhood challenge!