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Is Learning to Share a Mandatory Skill?

Yes, if you want to make and keep friends. But there are limits.

Our teenage son had (still has) a wonderful friend in preschool named Jessy who had a unique approach to sharing toys – other people’s toys. When she was two years old, she was a pretty good talker and would approach any potential playmate with “I’m Jessy. Wanna play? Share?” Few could resist her enthusiasm, but things eventually turned sour when that playmate discovered Jessy’s “Share?” really meant “My turn with your toys – now.” She had taken the concept of sharing, something that seemed quite important to grown-ups, and turned it on its two-year old head; “Me first, my turn ‘til I’m done.” This is not the more fair-minded version of sharing we adults admire; that version is not usually understood by children until they are about five or so. But like many other developmental milestones, it takes more time than we might like and requires many interim steps to mature.

As social beings, we seem to be born with a predisposition to share. I’ve never forgotten seeing a young toddler sharing his beloved stuffed animal with a peer who was wailing away at the school’s “goodbye window” after separating from her daddy after drop-off. Parents can do a lot to nurture this seed of sharing. Watching us share regularly with our partners and friends helps a lot, whether it’s a sandwich, housework, bathroom time or childcare. Narrating sharing moments that they see in their families and neighborhoods helps them get the point that it feels good to be on both sides of this sharing thing; making someone happy simply feels great. Here are three suggestions for how to help this impulse grow along with your child.

  • Try not to enforce sharing by making your child relinquish a valued play item, or discipline him or her when being stingy, or labeling such behavior as selfish. This simply leads to your child resenting you and your rules, not learning the magic of sharing – that it eventually feels better than hoarding.
  • Tip the playing field in favor of making sharing easier to swallow during playdates; things they do not want to share should be stored in a bin or other safe place, giving them the message that they don’t have to share everything – especially their faves. Then help them think ahead of time about the things that would be fun to use together (craft or drawing materials, simple sports equipment, puzzles or blocks that are simple enough to be managed and enjoyed together), giving them the sense that they have some control over what will happen with and to their stuff.
  • When Jessy was asking to ‘share’ an item already in the grip of one of her peers, the idea of sharing may not have even occurred to the younger children in her class. It may have felt more like a surprise assault that only one of them would survive. It helps younger children to frequently review the rules of sharing when it is still only a sometimes skill; a) when they finish, then it’s your turn (I find kitchen timers helpful in deciding how long when is – 10 minutes is plenty), b) when you leave a toy, it’s there for anyone else who would like to play with it, c) if you bring something special to school or someone else’s house, they get a turn, too, so don’t take anything that you can’t share. It is okay to not have to share everything; privacy has to begin somewhere.
More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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