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Sharing and Empathy with Toddlers: Why I don't tell my kid to share

“You have to share.”

“Take turns.”

“Good sharing!”

These are some of the most popular and ubiquitous phrases you’ll hear in a group of parents and toddlers – right up there with “use your words” and “great job.” At the playground, in the sand box, during play dates – the institution of sharing seems to be high on the list of most parents’ concerns.

With good reason. It feels so nice to have our little ones rise to the occasion. I get warm fuzzies when my three-year-old hands over a tiny racecar to a covetous friend. We all want our kids to be polite, socially-skilled little beings – the kind who plays well with others has the all-important life skills of compromise, empathy, and kindness.

But still, I’ve never said these words to my son. The more I watch toddler group dynamics and learn about how their brains grow, the more I think the sharing expectation is off base with the way the mind of a two-year-old works. And more importantly, it doesn’t actually teach the complex and far-reaching social skills we ultimately want our kids to master.

If you have a toddler, you’ve seen it before: when they’re really focused on playing with something – whether it’s a treasured lovie, a sand-scooping bulldozer, or a simple wooden spoon – it’s their entire world at that moment. Play is the most pivotal job little kids have, and whatever seemingly random toy has their attention captivated, that’s the all-important work of the moment.

In adult terms, it’s like when I sit down with my morning coffee and get absorbed by a book – the rest of the world falls away, and my attention is completely wrapped up. Asking a toddler to share what he’s working with (if it’s something in which he’s truly engaged) would be a bit like saying to me in that moment, “Now, you read that novel for five minutes and then give it to Tommy so he can read for five minutes.” I might comply, but I’d feel interrupted, confused, and probably more than a little annoyed.

In fact, we have reason to think that young kids naturally feel a particularly strong sense of ownership when it comes to objects (stronger than that of adults), which helps explain the monumental meltdowns that can happen over who’s playing with what. They’re not trying to be manipulative and stubborn (okay, not always) – handing their stuff over is legitimately challenging given the brain software they’re working with.

One of the reasons the toddler brain can’t wrap itself around our adult concept of sharing is that it’s difficult to see things from another person’s perspective. That’s the crux of empathy – one of our most complex and sophisticated human cognitive skills and something that takes the bulk of childhood, and maybe even part of young adulthood, to master.

So instead of harping on sharing, I’ve put my energy towards helping my little guy flex those empathy muscles and develop an awareness of his own feelings and how he impacts other people. When he shares with me – for example, this morning picking some of his prized blueberries off his breakfast plate – I let him know it makes me feel good. When a fellow preschooler is coveting the broom and dustpan set he’s playing with, instead of saying, “Can you share with so-and-so?” I might say, “Hmm, looks like so-and-so is really interested in your toy.” If he’s not ready to hand it over, I’ll say, “Let him know you’re working with it, and he can play with it when you’re finished.” In other words, we respect people’s time with their stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not so black and white. If we have a play date at our house, my son’s toys are fair game. That’s the whole point of being a good host. Unless it’s his number one and two loves – baby and blankie – the rest is communal. If you put it down and walk away to do something else, you have to say, “I’m working with this, could you save it for me?” Or else the other person can pick it up and start to play.

And there are plenty of social behaviors I just flat out teach my son and expect him to follow, like saying thank you, or asking for things with a question instead of demanding them with a statement. But when it comes to sharing, I prefer to focus my attention on helping him build the abilities underneath it instead of imposing it from the top down. The broom and dustpan exchange is momentary, but I’m pretty sure the underlying emotional skills will be some of the most important ones he’ll have for the rest of his life.

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