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Toddlers and Sharing: A New Approach

Toddlers aren’t exactly known for their willingness to share.

If I could sum up my experience with toddlers and generosity it would be this: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine and what might someday be yours is mine too.”

But a new study has revealed that I might not be giving toddlers enough credit.


Researchers from Harvard and the University of Bristol have found that children as young as 3 are willing to share rewards with others, but with an important caveat: that the others deserved the reward. The toddlers played a fishing game and worked to retrieve coins from a pretend pond. Puppets were used as partners, and at the end of the game the toddlers had to decide whether or not to reward the puppets for their contribution. By examining how many reward stickers the toddlers gave the puppets, they were able to determine if the children shared based on merit.

I find this fascinating. What it tells me is that toddlers are far more sophisticated in their understanding of justice, and that they observe so much more than what we give them credit for.

I think about my own toddler, who seems to have a lot of difficulty sharing with her friends and brothers. Would she be a better sharer if we did a better job explaining why others are deserving? This study has made me consider how I might be able to do that.

Instead of just telling her that she needs to share, or using that old standby, ” Sharing is nice!” I’m going to see if other approaches help. Things like:

  • You should share with your brother because he let you play with his toy earlier.
  • Share with your friends so that they’ll share with you the next time you go to their houses.
  • Sarah is such a nice friend. She always shares with you. Let’s try sharing your toy with her now.

It can’t hurt!

Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

More by Mary Lauren:

10 Ideas For Backyard Toddler Fun

Family Biking with your Toddler: Tips from the Pros!

20 Ideas for One-on-One Time with Your Toddler

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