When Do Kids Start Sharing?

Two kids playing and sharing toys together.
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When do kids start sharing? Think about that as you imagine this scenario. There you are, at a pool party with your new friends. This is great you think to yourself. Susie and Beth are my new best friends! I finally met some nice moms at the park!

Then you hear it – a blood-curdling scream. Definitely your kid. You scramble to your feet to see what's going on, only to see your just-turned-three-year-old wrenching his pool toy out of the hands of Beth's son.

Beth beats you to the scene of the crime, though, and when you arrive you can hear her imploring voice saying, “It's okay, honey, he just wants to borrow it. Can you share?” Uh oh.

You think to yourself when do kids start sharing?

What's Really Going on Here?

It seems that parents start encouraging (or forcing) sharing before children can even crawl. What's the reason behind this insistence?

The cause of much of the parental angst accompanying the push to share is that we parents want to avoid being judged. We want to hear “What a well-mannered boy you have!”, not “Your child knocked my child down.”

Parents want to raise likable children. We want conflict-free parenting interactions, regardless of where we are. We try to raise generous, selfless humans who genuinely care for others. Okay, great. But none of those adjectives apply to a two-or-three-year-old child. 

Kids sharing and playing toys together without arguing.

What Is Sharing, Anyway?

The word ‘sharing‘ does not mean to a young child what it means to an adult. To a very young child, ‘sharing' is when he has to give his very favorite toy to another child. This may be for a few minutes, or it could mean forever – the child never knows.

The idea that ‘sharing is caring' simply doesn't apply to toddlers. They don't understand the concept, and are completely unable to put it into practice. ‘Sharing' actually may as well be stealing from a toddler's perspective.

But MY Toddler Shares!

No, he doesn't. Yes, maybe he gives you a bite of his donut. Perhaps he brings you a block from time to time. This is not sharing. More likely, the child is seeking approval and looking for the positive feedback that comes when you enjoy a morsel of Krispy Kreme. Some children will even hold out a toy and then withdraw it, testing the waters during social interaction. It's not sharing.

 A boy and a girl fighting over toys and not getting along.

When Do Kids Start Sharing?

Around the age of two, most children recognize the concept of ownership and will protest if someone tries to take their toy away. But empathy? Fuggedaboudit. The two-year-old has no concept of others' feelings – heck, he barely knows he is a separate person at this age. Still working on that.

Another thing the two-year-old does not recognize? Time. So when you take his favorite lovey and give it to the enemy (read: another child), your toddler knows that rotten child will keep his prized possession FOR. EV. ER.

Lastly? Impulse-control, for the win. The toddler's creed tells all you need to know: “If I want it, it's mine. If I give it to you and change my mind later, it's mine. If I can take it away from you, it's mine. If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.” At the first inkling of ownership, the toddler snaps, screams, demands, hits, kicks……you know the drill.

Two toddler playing doctor together and having a good time.

Moving Along the Continuum of Sharing

Like all stages of child development, you can expect to go two steps forward and one step back as your child begins to share. It's not like Tuesday your child won't share, but then on Wednesday he magically will. When do kids start sharing? There is no precise age, but here are some tips for moving your child towards the act of sharing.

Give a Play-By-Play

Tap into your inner sportscaster as you narrate what's happening between playmates. Using a calm tone, describe the actions of the children relative to the desired object (“You want the truck, but Timmy has it now.”) encouraging and praising the waiting child. By giving language to the situation, you may help both children to process the incident.

Bring a Timer

Even though the result is no better, ‘taking turns' sounds better to a toddler than ‘sharing'. Armed with your timer, you can adequately supervise these turns, ensuring both parties get a fair shake. Your child will begin to learn that when someone else has a turn, it isn't forever. As a bonus, the timer is the ‘bad guy', not the parent!

Ensure Safety

If and when your child's frustrations turn to hitting, kicking, or other violent actions, take a consistent stand. Make it clear that you will not allow him to hurt other people. If this requires you to hold him still, do so. Despite your upset, speaking and acting calmly will encourage your child to remain calm, as well.

Edit Toys For a Playdate

If you know that more than one child will be dying to play with a particular toy, put it out of sight for the playdate. If your child just isn't ‘there' yet about sharing, why ask for trouble? Be sure to make clear to your child that the toy in question is off-limits during the playdate.

A boy looking at his sister getting ready to hit her out of frustration.

Model

Children are constantly watching and listening. When having a bowl of ice cream, ask your husband if he'd like to ‘share'. Make a point of ‘sharing' the couch with your child and reading a book or watching a show together. Make this language prevalent in your home.

Also make a point of using the phrase ‘take turns', and demonstrate this for your child. “Dad and I are taking turns watering the garden.” The more he hears these phrases and sees peaceful actions alongside them, the more normal sharing and taking turns will seem.

Wait

Our kids develop on their own timelines. Be patient, and know that stomping your feet and insisting your child share will likely have the opposite of your intended effect. Your child will learn to share. Eventually. While you're waiting, take a deep breath and enjoy him for who he is right now.

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