If you’ve ever taken your young child to a public playspace you’ve undoubtedly heard parents or nannies barking at their little companion to share.
“Share, Frances!” “Arthur, you need to share!”
But there’s a difference between telling your child to share at playtime and teaching and modeling sharing behaviors to your child.
Sharing is so difficult for little ones because it involves so many of the big hard skills that they just haven’t mastered yet: self-regulation, communication, patience and empathy. They’re difficult concepts, and for that reason, sharing truly is a developmental milestone.
Before the age of 3.5, in fact, children really aren’t even able to wrap their minds around the concept of sharing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Sharing is complex and something children aren’t ready for developmentally and cognitively until about the age of four – and for some children older,” says Rachel Duda, VP of Learning at Vivvi. “If your child isn’t doing this yet at the age of 2 or 3 it is not something to be concerned about, because they’re not developmentally ready.”
Before they get to this milestone though, she says, “It is important that grownups model sharing in everyday life and narrate and name what’s happening.”
Here are five steps to help you model and teach sharing to your child during playtime:
1. Institute a “No Snatching” Rule.
Imagine being lost in a world of play with a toy and then another kid (or grown up!) grabs it and takes it away. Ouch! That can be so upsetting and disruptive. Sharing and taking turns is so much easier when there’s a firm No Snatching rule in place.
For a child that can understand fairness, this concept can be discussed: snatching never feels fair and little children really desire a sense of fairness. For a child not yet able to comprehend that, a little parenting redirection can help. When a snatch happens, help the child responsible give the toy back to the child who had it first and then help them negotiate sharing using the steps that follow this one.
Admittedly as parents, sometimes we need to pick up our child’s toys and get them out the door or in the bed—even when they don’t want us to do it. But here, we suggest giving your child warnings. “Two more minutes with the blocks before bedtime,” etc.
2. Let your child finish their play.
When your young child is playing with blocks or dolls or pots and pans, they have a game at play. Although everyone else may be completely oblivious to what they’re doing, your young child has developed rules and missions and feelings for this game in their mind. And they’d really, really like to finish it before they have to give it to the next child in line. You can understand that, right?
Help them come to a natural completion of their play before they pass the toy off by allowing them the time and space they need to finish their game.
3. Ask: How much longer do you need?
You can help your child find a natural completion to their play by asking them how much longer they need. Would your child like one, two or three more minutes with their toy before they share it?
For example, you’d say, “Mila, it really seems like Libby would like a turn with that doll. How much longer would you like with doll to finish up your game?”
If Mila says “I don’t want to share” you can remind her that she gets to choose how much longer she gets with the doll. Would she like one, two or three minutes?
4. Help create a turn-taking rotation.
Once you’ve navigated your way through the initial share, you may see this is a toy many children are interested in having a turn with.
Help them figure out an order for their share rotation – who goes first, second, third. You may find the children organically play and pass off to the next child without any interference necessary. Yippee! If that isn’t the case, you have a few options. You can remind each child, “one more minute then pass to Elsie,” or you can bring out a timer.
Tip: Make sure to narrate and thank children for showing kindness. “Gigi, you passed the toy to Leon so gently! Great job!”
5. Supervise playtime.
We’re not saying you should become a helicopter parent. We just suggest you stay within hearing range of your child’s playdate. In this way, you give your child freedom to create the play on their own terms – but also are available to help with conflict resolution when needed.
Successful playtime supervision might look like: you stepping in when you hear a “That’s mine!!” or “Hey, no snatching!” and modeling the correct behavior.