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Why You Can’t Teach a Toddler to Share

Kids_toys_400It may surprise you just how complicated the act of sharing actually is. Adults insist to children, “Just share.” But for a small child, there is nothing just in sharing.

If we unravel the pieces needed before one can genuinely share, then it becomes clear why toddlers can’t. What is needed to share? A sense of: self and mine; ownership; their needs getting met (“I have all I need, now I can look around and see what others need”); other people and their feelings (which can be different from their own); time (for turn-taking); patience, control of actions, and ability to override impulses (waiting; not grabbing what they want).

So why do toddlers stubbornly refuse to share? The simple answer is, they can’t.

Two-year-olds cannot be expected to share, because they do not yet fully understand that others have wishes that could conflict with their own. They only know what they want, at this moment, and what they want is “mine.” Toddlers are in the throes of understanding ownership for the first time: “This is mine!” They view objects as part of who they are, which you know because they hold on for dear life to anything they label “mine.” This part can worry parents, as it looks so selfish from the adult view. So I will remind you that they don’t stay at this stage forever; still, it is one they must pass through. As their brains develop and they begin to get a sense of others as people, too, they enter the realm of peers. And that is when they start to get better at cooperation and sharing. But first the toddler’s job is to figure out what ownership means. This will gradually change as they begin to play with peers. When they want to make friends, they have more motivation to share. Three- and four-year-olds are getting better at sharing because they have a more developed sense of what is “mine” and a more developed sense of “others” but they often get confused and act in ways that appear selfish to us. When adults give them the support and distance to work it out, more often than not, they do.

At these ages, children have no or little sense of time, which also makes sharing nearly impossible. Even when they say “in five minutes!” what they mean is “not now.” Giving up what they have in the framework of “it is his turn” or “your turn will be next” requires a sense of time. To the toddler, these are arbitrary rules made up by the powerful adults. In truth, what toddlers desire, they desire now.

Then there is the desire to help others. Toddlers, especially at two, have little understanding of what others think and feel. That comes later. What they know is Me. The idea that someone else desires what I have is incomprehensible. I have it, I want it. End of story.

What does all this mean? Again, don’t expect kids this age to share willingly, genuinely, or generously . . . they just don’t get it yet. They are not being rude or selfish. They simply cannot understand in any real or sincere way. Their brains do not yet have that capacity.

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