Authentic Toddler Sharing Begins With Empathy

Posted on Jun 19 2014 - 9:05am by megganmamma
toddler sharing

Leah and Joshi on a tricycle built for sharing

I always feel relieved when I leave an environment where mums are constantly telling their kids to share and insisting on it. It’s nice to be out of ear shot from the repetitive mantra of “share, share, share.”  Yes I know, us mums want our kids to share.  We want them to be socially acceptable and not to offend others.  And it feels uncomfortable for us when we see their innocent actions upsetting another kid (and their mum).  So I know it’s with good intention that this whole exchange of words and toys is orchestrated, but I can’t help but feel that it only worsens the behaviour we’re wanting to prevent.

I’m not interested in forcing sharing through taking toys off Joshi and returning them to their owner.  It feels weird.  For me that isn’t an effective way to help him learn authentic sharing.  I won’t get him to return a toy simply because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do or because other mums expect it of me.  It’s pointless, or rather – it’s not enough.  It needs more.  Rather, I want to help him understand how another kid feels when he takes something from them that they’re busy with.  I want to nurture him towards authentically caring and being considerate of other people’s needs or desires, rather than to just have him share because this playground policemum is watching and extolling the virtues of being ‘a good sharer.’

How To Help Your Toddler Learn To Share

When I came across Aletha Solter’s take on how to teach a toddler sharing I really resonated with it.  According to Solter, “If you force your toddler to share her toys, this may only make her more possessive and resistant.”  Instead the most helpful thing you can do is to respect a child’s possessiveness, but let them know how the other child is feeling.  These are ways in which you can help encourage toddler sharing:

1. Handle Your Toddler’s Disputes Through Mediation

When your toddler has a dispute around sharing, you can play a valuable role by becoming a sounding board, reflecting the emotions of the children back to them.  Here’s an example that she gives in her book, “The Aware Baby“:

“Sammy had a small toy zebra.  Betty grabbed it out of his hand. Sammy began to cry and went to his mother.  She held him and said, ‘It makes you sad and angry when Betty takes a toy away, doesn’t it?’  Sammy looked at the zebra in Betty’s hand and cried some more.  His mother said, ‘Betty, wants to play with it too.  You both want the zebra.’  Then she said to Betty, ‘Sammy is crying because you took the zebra from him.  He wants to play with it.’ Betty looked at Sammy and clutched the zebra tighter saying, ‘Betty want zebra.’ The mother said, ‘Yes, you want to play with the zebra.  You both want it.  Will you let Sammy know when you are done playing with the zebra?’ After a while, Betty saw another toy and dropped the zebra.  Sammy picked it up.”

I’ve noticed that in similar situations this sort of talk usually has Joshi return the toy on his own, without being told to and without resistance or upset. It’s been quite amazing to watch.

Solter believes that by showing compassion and acting as an objective mediator when your toddler has disputes with other children she will eventually learn more mature ways of interacting.  This is a much more affective approach, in the long run, than lecturing or giving punishments or adult solutions to their disputes.  Although it may not appear to accomplish anything immediately, using this approach will help your toddler gradually develop her own strategies for getting along with other children.  She will also learn empathy at an early age because a toddler who has fully experienced what it feels like to have a toy taken away will eventually begin to understand what another child feels in a similar situation. When kids are helped to understand each other’s feelings around sharing conflicts they’ll more naturally and authentically start to share on their own, given time and space.

2.  Be A Good Role Model For Polite Sharing Behaviour

One of the most effective ways of teaching your toddler to share is to be a good role model for them around sharing. Sharing’s something that’s best nurtured and encouraged, not taught overnight.  Kids are constantly imitating our behaviour and they’ll learn to imitate our behaviour around sharing too. If you want your kid to share, stop telling them to do it, show them how it’s done through your own ability to share.  If you’re not letting your kid eat the food off your plate and telling him that it’s yours and that he should eat his, that’s what he’s learning about sharing.  You are your kid’s sharing role model.  Of course there may be some things that you don’t share with your kid for good reason, but if you share much more often that you don’t, that’s what they’ll learn.

3.  Allow Your Toddler To Release Emotions Around Sharing Disputes

Solter allowed her toddlers to release their anger during conflicts.  She allowed them to express strong emotions without trying to stop them or distract them from their feelings.  This allowed them to become aware of their own and other kid’s feelings. Consequently they learned to understand another kid’s point of view and the concept of sharing at an early age.  If you give your toddler this kind of support you can trust them to become thoughtful and altruistic of their own accord.

What Makes Toddler Sharing Even Harder

The concept of ownership is so strong in our western culture and it’s not benefitting us.  It’s not healthy for us to put so much emphasis on things belonging to a certain kid.  Phrases like “this is YOUR spade” and “no, that’s HER spade” just cause unnecessary possessiveness in kids and makes it harder for them to just be with the object as an object, free of ownership … and contradicts the whole essence of sharing.

Is Sharing Always Necessary?

Sharing is a cool thing to do, that we all know.  It feels awesome when someone shares something with us and, if, we’re not forced to share, the good feeling that comes from sharing can be just as awesome, but is sharing always necessary? I can’t tell you how often I’ve witnessed a mum forcing her kid to share their toy with another kid while they’re still busy with it.  I remember watching this well-meaning mum trying to get her kid to give another kid a go on their bike.  Their kid was enjoying riding at the time.  I know she meant well, but it just felt wrong to me.  I mean, how would you feel if you were busy with something and someone bigger than you insisted you give it to someone else?  Wouldn’t you feel that your feelings and desires were less important than the feelings and desires of someone else?  That’s what we’re reinforcing in our kids if we make them hand over a toy of theirs they’re still busy with.  If someone took my iphone off me when I was busy using it and gave it to someone else just because they wanted me to learn sharing, I’d be pretty annoyed.  I’d think this sharing thing stinks! To be honest, even if I wasn’t busy with my iphone I wouldn’t be too keen on any random person down at the playground using it.  Maybe our kids feel that way about some of their toys … and if they do, surely we ought to respect that.  Maybe there’s a time and place for everything, even sharing.

Now it’s your turn.

What do you think?  Do you think it’s necessary to teach a toddler sharing?  What helped your toddler and what didn’t help?


Chances are you came across this on Facebook or some other social media – probably because someone who read it was into sharing.  If you found it interesting or helpful, please click like or share.  

2 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Kat June 20, 2014 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Great post! I tend to agree with you.
    I think sharing is just one aspect of being a kind, considerate, authentic human being, so I tend to just model that kind of behaviour and sharing happens pretty organically with my little fella. He is three and is unbelievably good at playing with others peacefully and respectfully and has this capacity for empathy that I find amazing. I think it helps that he is an extrovert so other people’s behaviours and experiences are almost as important to his enjoyment as his own – he really enjoys sharing toys with others. But yeah, I tend to do what you’ve mentioned Aletha Solter does (never read any of her stuff but I’m clearly on a similar wavelength), just be the impartial mediator and help the kids come to a mutually agreeable resolution.
    It drive me absolutely NUTS when parents just yell out, ‘Bla bla, sharing please, remember to share!’ I’m like, what the hell can some two or three year old glean from that? It’s just an abstract concept when put that way, there’s no explanation of what it actually means to share, why we might do it, why it’s a good idea. I guess people feel uncomfortable when their kid just grabs stuff off another kid, fair enough, but ultimately I prefer to give my child knowledge about the world rather than just say things out loud for the benefit of others. I once witnessed a mum doing this with her little one who was just walking, probably 15 months, 18 at most. The little girl was just wandering about checking everything out, as they do at that age, and the mum’s yelling across the group of mums and bubs, ‘share, remember to share’… Say what?! It was so bizarre, I nearly giggled in disbelief. The odd thing was that the child had just picked up a toy off the ground, there weren’t really any other kids wanting the toy. Anyway, extreme example, but it struck me as both amusing and pretty typical of mums just desperately wanting their little ones to learn social skills but unable to find the skills to help them. 🙂

    • megganmamma June 21, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Hi Kat, thanks for sharing! Great role modelling right there! 🙂

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