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Why Doesn’t Sharing Come More Naturally?

How to gently nudge our youngest children toward generosity

When children are babies, they love to share things such as food items (often partially consumed), sippy cups, wipes and dolls, as long as it is clear that they retain ownership. As they get older, they may unexpectedly pass around a tray of doughnuts, ensuring that everyone at the table gets one. I saw a toddler cross a daycare lobby to lend a cuddly stuffed animal to a peer who was loudly grieving the departure of a parent, leading a teacher to comment, ‘Look at our budding empathy.’ But such events don’t mean it’s easy for children under two to readily accept their parents’ wishes that they share on demand. One of the more popular segments of my book on 18- to 36-month-olds, Me, Myself and I*, is the section titled Toddler’s Property Laws, in which I list the various ways toddlers claim ownership to things. Here are a few of those “laws.”

  • If I like it, it’s mine.
  • If it might be mine, it’s mine.
  • If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
  • If I had it before (ever), it’s mine.
  • If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.

This temporary tyranny is all in the service of becoming one’s own self, separate from Mom and Dad. As antisocial as it sounds, it’s the foundation of new levels of independence, socialization and vital interactive play with other children. So how do you gently nudge that self-centered toddler into becoming generous? Here are a few ways to encourage sharing and generosity.

As is so often the case, children grow to give what they have received. Valued and generously loved children find it much easier to be generous to others – in due time. Parents who behave generously (and talk about it) help their children develop the language of sharing early on. Phrases such as “Want to share my grapes?” or “I’d love it if I could share your orange, okay?” afford your child the chance to hear the vocabulary of sharing in the context of positive emotions like appreciation and generosity. This helps children begin to understand that generosity is a way of staying emotionally close to the people they want to stay close to.

Avoid parent-enforced sharing whenever possible. The umpire is the least popular position in any sport or family. Acting as the referee supports the fantasy that, when a child wants something another child has, you can make things fair or right by forcing that other child to share. Instead, whenever you can, use the huge power of your affection to comfort the child, reassuring him you are staying right there and helping him wait for his turn.
When you catch your child sharing, which they are more likely to do with younger, less intimidating peers, praise her for it, tell her how proud you are that she shared. This works far better than teaching or trying to make children share.
Children in mixed age groups often find it easier to share than those who interact with their peers. Older children are usually less territorial and more likely to share, which can be a cue to younger children to share. These moments should be met with praise.

*Pruett, Kyle D. (1999) Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self, 18 to 36 Months. Goddard Press, NY

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (