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

Why I dont tell my kid to share

By Heather Turgeon |

“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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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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25 thoughts on “Sharing and Empathy with Toddlers: Why I don’t tell my kid to share

  1. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know… If I have my friends over to play Wii I give them turns on the game. If there’s anything my kids don’t want to share we put it in my room before the friends come over. I think it also teaches them to put others’ needs before their own.

  2. Anonymous says:

    i’m having an issue with my son, who is 18 months old, taking toys from other toddlers/babies. I don’t expect these other little ones to share what they are playing with just like you’ve explained, but I do not like my son grabbing whatever it is out of their hands saying “no”. I understand its normal for his age, but wondering how to address it.

  3. anonymous says:

    Every child is different. Our 3rd child shares beautifully (she’s had a lot of practice with older siblings) but our eldest snatched toys. Kids are kids, what matters to me is how they are parented. I have stopped playing with friends because of the “work it out mentality.” That means that more aggressive / older kids enjoy the play date, but the younger ones don’t. I think you need to think not only about the child but how the other parents feel. If I have to listen to my child cry for an hour, the play date is not worth my time.

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve always thought sharing is overrated. I am the baby of the family and one of my first and favorite sentences (I am told) was “It’s mine.” Even as an adult, I would rather give you whatever it is you want than share it with you. The only exception may be that I now love sharing anything with my almost 4 year old. How the tables turn! But, I agree with your approach, when she was about 2, her same age cousin would rip every toy that she tried to play with out of her hands, and everyone would say, “well, she has to learn to share” – and my first thought was, why? Thanks for the post!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I encouraged my daughter to “hold on tight” to her toys when other toddlers tried to take them away. She was a sensitive toddler and would begin crying when other kids took something away from her. I never encouraged her to share, but when she was a little bit over two, I started mentioning to her the idea of taking turns so that all kids can play. I believe that introducing the idea of playing cooperatively and fairly is healthy for kids who are old enough to understand, but I also believe that it is important to support kids in asserting their ownership of things.

  6. anniet says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve mentioned above. But I think one element of this conversation, and perhaps the most controversial one, is what to do when your child grabs something from another child. What’s the best strategy for that?!!?!?

  7. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  8. Sblmgrl says:

    I like this very much! I was just thinking about how much pain and stress goes into sharing and you know what? My kid don’t have to share his new toy he got for his birthday with anyone. I hated having to pass it around and let other kids play with due to the fact it was “being nice and fair” but actually it tore my son apart and having to deal with all those emotions gets you a little stressed out and I don’t like watching my son get so upset

  9. Hellen says:

    “i’m having an issue with my son, who is 18 months old, taking toys from other toddlers/babies. I don’t expect these other little ones to share what they are playing with just like you’ve explained, but I do not like my son grabbing whatever it is out of their hands saying “no”. I understand its normal for his age, but wondering how to address it.”

    I worked at a Child Development Center for a few years and when children would “snatch” toys, we would try to work on problem solving/”flexing their empathy muscles” by focusing on the other child and their reaction to the toy snatching. For example, if Johnny took Janie’s doll and she started crying, we would say, “Johnnny, you took that doll from Janie and now she’s crying. Tthat made her sad. That’s a problem. What do you think you can do to help her feel better?” (Hopefully, he will give the doll back; if not, you can help guide him to that solution.) If your child then gets upset because he is without the doll, you can say something along the lines of, “You’re sad because you were really wanting to play with that doll. But it’s not ok to take things that people are using. Maybe we can find a new toy or ask Janie how many minutes she needs before she’s finished with the doll.”

  10. Rose Lynn says:

    I’ve always been a big believer in kids sharing and have done what the majority of parents (or people watching little kids) and taught them to share the way I was taught. Which is to say, have them play with something for a little while and then give it to another little kid who is also wanting to play with it…or whatever the case may be. After having read this article it actually makes a lot of sense.

    I am currently 22 weeks pregnant and I think I will be trying a new tactic with this one and see what happens. I think it’s important that kids learn how to share and play nice with others, however, I think it’s also important to understand things from their point of view to better understand why they react the way that they do to certain situations. (I’ve actually watched kids who have listened to me better then their own parents because I did things a little differently and tended to listen a little better when they told me things. I followed the parents rules that they gave me, however, I also knew it was important to listen to the child if they were telling me why they were throwing a fit over a certain situation.)

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  12. Alice Kaltman says:

    Great article!

    Sharing is difficult at any age, especially in a proprietary and materialistic society like ours. I often need to tell the parents I work with to relax about sharing, or the lack thereof. In my opinion, shared by many developmental professionals, sharing should be considered a developmental stage, something to encourage but not force, like walking or talking, or using the potty.

    Most toddlers conceptualize everything in their worlds as extensions of their corporeal beings; their toys, their food, their parents, the views out their windows. I cringe when kids are categorized as good sharers or bad sharers. Asking a three year old to willingly hand over a toy is like asking them to cut off their arm and give it away. Yes. Ouch.

    I love Heather’s idea of focusing on the flip side, empathy. But alas, that’s often another developmental milestone parents need to wait for.

    So patience. Some kids move in to a more fluid acceptance of sharing sooner than others. We all need to limit the comparisons, pointing out the good sharer while the ‘bad’ sharer bear hugs their toy truck or doll so tightly we fear for their circulation!

  13. April Sumner says:

    It depends. If we are hosting a playdate and we invite over other kids, than I do expect my kids to share everything but their lovies. Because they need to learn to be a gracious host. However if we take our own toys to a playground for example, I am not always going to force them to share. Another kid does not need to be riding their tricycle at the park. Their parent needs to bring their own tricycle. I took the time and care to pack up things for my kids to take with us for a reason. So they would have sand toys to play with in the sandbox for example.

    But if my kids are not using something currently and another kid wants it, than I will encourage them to let the other kid see it. But, I won’t make my kid stop playing with something and just hand it over at a public place.

    I have had a hard time with mothers not stepping in with their kids when their kids commandeer my kids toys at playgrounds or pools. I should not have to be the one to make your kid give my kid their toy back.

  14. Melissa says:

    I don’t make my daughter hand over the toy she’s CURRENTLY playing with, but, if there are other toys around that are hers, I have her offer one of those instead. Then, when both are done with the toys, they can switch if they like, or get another toy. I do the empathy/sharing lesson together. “She looks like she might like that toy as much as you do” “Maybe when you’re finished, you can let her see it” We always shared with her showing how nice it is to share with someone who might like what you have. And sharing is FUN because then, you can play together.

  15. Nmcdny says:

    For me the main thing is fit adults to stop stage managing sharing disputes as much as they do. By constantly butting in parents deprive their kids if the opportunity to learn about how it feels to be on both ends of a sharing dispute, how it feels when you can’t get what you want and how as kids grow older they start to shun the kids who don’t share. I’m not saying there aren’t times when we need to make them share, but certainly in the playground and the sandbox we need to allow for some conflict and stop trying to maintain a “happy, happy” atmosphere all the time. It’s unfair to kids who miss out on the social and emotional lessons they can learn just by being left alone to learn them.

  16. Elizabeth Strother says:

    I don’t really harp on making him share his toys either, Most of the time my 16 month old son is naturaly good with letting other kids play with his toys. there are a few things however that he does not like to share at all. He doesn’t like when any one else sits in his big boy chair (not even the cat) or snuggles with some of of his stuffed animals. This is a boundary that he has set and we respect it, for the most part. when he tries to play with other peoples things I remind him that it isn’t his and or that he should make sure it is ok if he plays with it first.

  17. HapaMama says:

    Re: Children snatching toys — At an early age, most babies don’t care if another baby snatches a toy. They will simply pick up another toy and begin to play with that. Something I’ve found very valuable with a RIE approach is the saying, “If you stop the taking, you also stop the giving.” That is, babies will take toys from each other, but they will also GIVE them. The two are interrelated. When they get older, if one child is constantly having toys taken away, then it’s the time to intervene and say, “Lee is playing with that toy now. When she’s done with it, you can play with it. I know it’s hard to wait.” These techniques take time and concentration, but it’s worth it in the end when kids are able to determine fAir play amongst themselves.

  18. Kassy Kelley says:

    sorry i think this is crap i was raised by mom , dad , aunts and my grandma who all made me share !!! Im not damaged by sharing but im sure its helped me deal with the real world and the unfair reality it brings !!! why are parents making such a big deal about lil things in toddlerhood !!! They will throw fits , not wanna eat what we want them to eat , watch cartoons and still grow up fine !! as long as the parents show them love and guide them along the way !! dont worry about everything , enjoy them and let them just b kids, childhood does not last long !!

  19. Anonymous says:

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  20. Anonymous says:

    I try really hard not to tell my twins to share, in fact try really hard not to even say the word. Instead, I say “take turns”. BUt I get it, I don’t want to share sometimes, so why should my kids. I also tell them that “E” is playing with it now, but you can ask and if she says no, you have to wait or find something else to play with. Sharing is such a hard concept for everyone, much less toddlers.

    thanks for posting this great article!

  21. kekea520 says:

    For me the main thing is fit adults to stop stage managing sharing disputes as much as they do.

  22. Kendra Stein says:

    I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I also agree with Kassy Kelly’s argument. No two kids are the same. What works for one kids might not work for another. I think it’s important to utilize more that one teaching method if needed and remember to relax. Many times kids can and will work things out on their own if we let them.

  23. Nelly Frect says:

    me too i totally agree with you…just like this read you will enjoy read more

  24. hayden says:

    I’m replying to Helen. I think your example is perfect and a great method for handling this difficult situation.

  25. Brad says:

    All complex social behaviors are learned behavior, and of course you can opt to not teach your child to share, but you are retarding hid/her social growth. Plain and simple.

    OF COURSE it’s uncomfortable! Many things about parenting are uncomfortable, and there’s a lot of pop-psych claptrap based on letting parents off the hook. The basic truth, though, is that we need to create human beings who can thrive in a society, and having highly developed social skills is important in meeting that goal.

    I’d also point out that most adults don’t like to share. If you google “tragedy of the commons” you’ll see that it’s a well known social phenomenon.

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