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The Secret of Toddler Sharing: Why Sharing Is Hard and How to Make It Easier

The Secret of Toddler Sharing: Why Sharing Is Hard and How to Make It Easier

by Elizabeth Crary

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Offering parents realistic expectations about toddler behavior, this guide provides detailed, how-to advice for teaching kids to share and for intervening when toddlers have difficulty sharing. It reviews children’s temperament and development and the roles they play in the willingness to share, while also explaining how to handle the child who never


Offering parents realistic expectations about toddler behavior, this guide provides detailed, how-to advice for teaching kids to share and for intervening when toddlers have difficulty sharing. It reviews children’s temperament and development and the roles they play in the willingness to share, while also explaining how to handle the child who never complains about giving up a possession. Relating personal experiences as real-life examples of the teaching process, this parenting reference includes scenarios and suggests dialogs to use. Three factors that encourage children to share are introduced, along with five strategies that specify how to teach sharing. Whether sharing issues come up with toddlers on play dates or in public places, parents will be armed with the knowledge of how to handle and teach their child.

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Parenting Press, Inc.
Publication date:
A Parenting Press Qwik Book Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)

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Secrets of Toddler Sharing

Why Sharing Is Hard and How To Make It Easier

By Elizabeth Crary

Parenting Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Crary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936903-12-2


The Secret of Toddler Sharing

The secret of toddler sharing is — toddlers don't share. Truly. They don't have the concept. They don't have the skills. They don't have the necessary delayed gratification.

But, you say, "I have seen toddlers share." Yes, I have too. These few young kids are the exception — either their temperament is flexible and yielding, they are very sensitive to others' feelings, or they were simply born with a generous, giving nature. True sharing rarely happens before three years of age. However, sharing is an excellent goal to work actively towards during toddlerhood — just not a reasonable expectation.

* Can Toddlers Learn to Share?

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to hasten your toddler's ability to share and get along peacefully with others. We will look at the nature of sharing, factors affecting sharing, and some specific things you can do to encourage sharing.

Challenge 1:Toddlers are just beginning to learn self-restraint and social skills.

When toddlers turn to you as they reach to pull the cat's tail or touch a forbidden object, they are not saying, "Ha, ha, ha. Catch me if you can," the way it often feels. Instead, they are usually saying, "Help me! I know I'm not supposed to do this, but I can't stop myself. The temptation is too great." Their situation is similar to a chocoholic trying to lose weight who sees a luscious piece of chocolate cake at a social gathering, and turns to a friend and says, "Get me away from here. The temptation is immense." Without self-restraint children cannot defer their wishes when asked to wait for a toy or turn or attention.

This lack of self-restraint prompts much of their unwanted action — running away in the parking lot, pulling the heads off the daffodils, walking through water puddles, and throwing, hitting, or biting when frustrated or angry.

Possible solution: Approach sharing as a skill to be learned, rather than an act of will or a product of maturation. If you teach specific skills and strategies, you can speed up the learning process. If you don't teach needed skills, your children may pick up some of the skills — or they may not.

The meaning of sharing

There is a fundamental difference in how adults and toddlers think about sharing. Life with toddlers is easier when you understand their point of view.

Adults' view: Kids play "nicely" together. Both (all) kids play peacefully — they divide toys, wait for a turn, and use the toys respectfully — no grabbing, pushing, whining, yelling, etc.

Toddlers' view: Adults expect them to give ownership of "their toys" to other children — pleasantly! Toddlers don't understand the difference between sharing a toy and giving it up permanently. So toddlers often become afraid the other child will not return their toy, and they act on that fear by having a tantrum, hitting, pushing, yelling, or behaving obnoxiously until the toy is returned. (See Challenge 2.)

From a practical point of view, sharing with toddlers has two aspects — (1) taking turns (Ava rides the truck around the room and then lets Molly ride it around) and (2) dividing items (Mark splits his hunk of play dough (or crackers) and gives half to Carlos).

Concepts in sharing

There are five concepts children need in learning to share:

• Mine

• Not mine

• Not mine have owners

• I can own it while you use it

• Joint ownership

You can tell what level your toddler is on by listening to his or her language. Mine is an important first step (however frustrating) because a person cannot truly share if they do not own anything. Not mine and Not mine have owners are important in learning to respect boundaries. The concept of I can own it while you use it is necessary for toddlers to let others use their things without fear of loss. Joint ownership, that two or more people can own something, is beyond most toddlers.

You will have to help your toddler learn these concepts.

Challenge 2:Toddlers have an immature understanding of ownership.

Toddlers believe that if they have an item, it belongs to them. Correspondingly, if the item is in your hands, it belongs to you. With toddlers, possession is not 9/ioth of the law, it is 100% of the law. If they have it, they own it. It is totally theirs. Therefore, toddlers are very reluctant to let another use it, even for a moment, because it will not belong to them anymore. However, this belief does not prevent them from trying to take an item that they want from someone else.

Possible solution: Teach kids to take turns so that they learn that they can own a thing while another person uses it. However, before we consider specific sharing strategies, let's look at some factors that influence sharing. (See "Taking turns" in the section "Five Sharing Strategies.")

* Factors Affecting Sharing

There are three factors that affect how easily a child learns to share: developmental stage, temperament, and personal experience.

Developmental stage

A child's developmental stage influences sharing, and each child has his own developmental timetable. One major developmental task for toddlers is to learn to be independent. Further, toddlers are very concerned with their own needs and wishes. As a result, toddlers want to do things for themselves, have their own ideas about how things should happen, and say "No" many times each day.

This focus on independence, their lack of relf-restraint, and their ignorance about ownership contributes to toddlers' inability to share. (See Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years by Helen F. Neville.)


Another factor that affects sharing is a child"s temperament. There are ten temperament traits (see sidebar). Each temperament trait is helpful in some situations and difficult in others. Of these ten traits, five directly influence a child"s ability to share. (See Temperament Tools by Helen F. Neville and Diane Clark Johnson.)

Ten temperament traits





Emotional sensitivity





Sensory awareness

Persistence. If a child is very persistent, he or she will continue to try to get a wanted toy. If the child with the toy holds on, persistent children may pull harder or try several strategies to get the toy. Children with low persistence generally give up if they meet resistance.

Intensity. Some children are more intense than others. These kids with high intensity cry louder, run harder, and generally put more energy into everything they do. If another child tries to take a toy they are using, these kids often react with an ear-piercing cry or a hard shove. Conversely, toddlers with low intensity may not be done using a toy, but rarely say anything if it is taken away from them.

Emotional sensitivity. Some children are very aware of their feelings and/or those of other people. Other children are unaware of their own feelings and oblivious to those of other children or adults. Although you can teach these kids to recognize and name feelings it can take a great deal of effort. It is usually easier for kids who are sensitive to others' emotions to learn to share.

Flexibility. Children who are highly adaptable find it comparatively easy to share. They can change activities and do (or use) something else. On the other hand, children with low flexibility, — sometimes called natural planners, get an idea in their mind and have a hard time changing direction. These children often have difficulty with sharing and with transitions. If you can help them create a new plan, things often work better.

Approach. Some children are naturally more curious, others naturally more cautious. Toddlers who are intensely curious may have difficulty waiting for a turn and try to take toys from other kids.


A child's experience with other people's sharing influences how early and easily she learns to share herself.

Family modeling. Parents and caregivers can encourage the process of sharing by deliberately sharing with the child and labeling what they are doing. For example, when a toddler is reaching for your purse, you can say, "Oh, would you like to play with my purse? Okay, I will share with you. You asked and I let you have a turn. That is sharing." Or, when a toddler is reaching for your peach, you can say, "Oh, would you like a bite of my peach? Okay, I'm happy to share with you. You asked for some and I gave it to you. That is sharing." Similarly, find times the toddler can share. Perhaps when she has a lot of mashed potatoes you can ask for a bite. If the child agrees, you can say, "Thank you. You shared your mashed potatoes with me." Adults can model asking and sharing between themselves as well.

Emotion coaching. Emotion coaching increases the possibility that toddlers will share. A University of Washington study reported that young children who shared more quickly and more often had parents who asked them to label feelings and to explain the emotions depicted in picture books.

Experience with young children. When toddlers have a sibling or other toddlers around who use a variety of strategies to share, toddlers can learn several ways to share. Conversely, if a toddler is in a setting where someone is always removing his toys, he may decide that he has no right to the toys and give up, or he might conclude toys go to the strongest person and put up resistance.

Family rules about toy use. Clear rules about toy possession and sharing make it easier for toddlers to learn what is acceptable. Different families have different rules. That is okay as long as the rules are consistent from day to day.

There are three approaches to who may use a toy: individual ownership, group ownership, and a blend. With individual ownership a toy belongs to the person to whom it was given. That child has the right to say who may use it, and when and where they may use it. When there is only one child in a family, this works fine. When several other children are involved it becomes challenging. (See "Strategies for dividing items," page 22.)

With group ownership all the toys belong to all the children. The question then becomes who has a right to use the toy now? It could be the child using it, the child who has been waiting, or perhaps the youngest child. ("Let the baby use it. When she is done, it will be your turn.")

As expected with a blend, families combine elements of both approaches. One way parents do that is to permit a child to have a couple of special (or precious) toys that they keep in their room when they are not using them. All other toys (those left in the common rooms) may be used by anyone. If a child leaves a special toy in the common area, it too may be used by anyone. The child must wait until the other child is done using it before returning it to his room.

It matters less what the rule is than that the rule is consistently enforced. If the rule is inconsistently enforced, kids have trouble figuring out what the rule really is.

We have looked at how toddlers understand sharing and some factors that influence how easily children learn to share. Next, we will look at five strategies for sharing and then look at how you can teach these skills.

* Five Sharing Strategies

Some toddlers who are observant and adapt easily pick up strategies for sharing quickly. Other toddlers need to be taught specific strategies and practice them over and over again until they feel comfortable with the new approaches before they venture to use them with others.

Five strategies toddlers can learn are to ask, take turns, trade, wait, and divide the items. When children are older you can add interactive play and cooperative play, however, these are beyond the scope of this book. We will briefly describe each strategy, discuss any challenges, and offer a "teaching script."

1. Asking

Asking is a popular adult strategy. Toddlers are often told, '"If you want something, ask for it. Don t grab it." As children grow, it is important for them to be able to ask for what they want. When asking another child to use the toy he or she is playing with, the asking can be verbal or nonverbal.

Challenge 3:Toddler's asking for a toy rarely works.

An informal study in a laboratory preschool found that 'asking for a toy" worked 7% of the time. If that is the only strategy you offer toddlers you are setting them up for failure 93% of the time.

Possible solution: Teach toddlers several strategies. You might want to teach one a week or maybe one a month until they are all introduced.

Steps in asking

Children go through several stages as they learn to ask for a toy: beginner, intermediate, and experienced. We will look at how each of these might play out.

Beginner dialog — Ask for toy

Alex: [Extending his hand] Truck? Or, May I have the truck?

Jason: No.

Alex: [Grabs the truck or cries.]

Improvement: Asking for a turn is often more successful than asking to use or have the item now.

Intermediate dialog — Ask for turn

Alex: May I have a turn with the truck?

Jason: No. I'm using it.

Alex: [Cries. (He asked nicely and was refused.)]

Challenge 4:Toddlers often get upset when children refuse their requests.

Asking implies the person asked has the right to say "yes" or "no." Your child will probably receive far more "nos" than "yeses." It rarely helps to tell your child to "Relax. It's not the end of the world. You will get a chance to play with the toy later." First, toddlers live VERY in the present. It feels to them that if they don't have it now, they will never have it. Second, few know (or rather few believe) that they will get a chance to use it even if they ask. Third, they are only learning to manage their feelings.

Possible solution: Teach the toddler specific tools to deal with his disappointment. You can teach your toddler to take a deep breath, shake out his mads, or take a sip of water. Note: Teaching kids to deal with disappointment takes time and energy — however, it saves you grief in the long run and prepares them for adulthood. A process for teaching toddlers (and others) self-calming tools is on page 25.

Another step in asking. Request a turn "when you are done." This is even more likely to be successful than asking for a turn now.

Experienced dialog — Ask when you may use it

Alex: Hi, Jason. May I have a turn with the truck?

Jason: No. I'm using it.

Alex: May I use it when you're done?

Jason: Umm. Maybe.

Alex: When will you be done? [Count minutes on a timer, laps around the room or table, etc.] Jason: Umm. Three minutes.

Progress is being made. Alex asked and now has Jason's agreement to use the truck, but no truck yet.

Challenge 5:Toddlers need to learn to wait for a turn.

Many adults are tempted to distract the child until the truck is available. That makes sense as a short-term strategy, however, in the long run it teaches the child to be dependent on someone else for happiness and problem solving.

Possible solution: You guessed it, teach the child to wait. That is one of our five strategies. Learn about strategies for waiting on page 14.

Teaching self-calming skills takes time

Teaching about feelings is a lot like teaching a language — what you work on now will begin to come together in three to six months.

To manage their feelings toddlers need to have a feelings vocabulary, understand about feelings (they all are okay, they change, they are different from actions, etc.), and have several self-calming strategies.

You can find out more about teaching 'emotional competence" in my book, Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don't Go Their Way.

How to teach asking

Three approaches to teaching "asking" suggest themselves.

Model sharing with other adults (partner or coworkers). Remember to include both acceptance and rejection of request. May I use the pen? ... Yes ... Thank you. Or, May I use your pen? ... No ... Okay, maybe later.

Speak for the child. Go with the child. Kneel behind him and ask the other child, "May Alex use the truck when you are done?" Then interpret the response, "Oh, you're not done yet? Alex will wait until you're done."

Practice with puppets (or trucks, or stuffed animals). Begin by playing both the asking and responding parts. Then involve the child. Kitty puppet can ask Puppy puppet for a turn with the train. You can ask your child, "What do you think Puppy will say?"

Asking for a toy is a socially acceptable approach to sharing, but one that rarely gets the desired item. We will now look at taking turns.

2. Taking turns

Taking turns involves serial "possession" of an item, — switching "ownership" back and forth. As we mentioned in the development section, toddlers are very concerned with their own needs and wishes, so they are not very good at serial possession. In the beginning, it is helpful if the turns are very, very short. As toddlers learn to trust they will get the item back, the turns can become longer.


Excerpted from Secrets of Toddler Sharing by Elizabeth Crary. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Crary. Excerpted by permission of Parenting Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Crary, MS, is the award-winning author of more than 40 children’s and child-guidance publications. She has taught parenting education, with an emphasis on problem-solving and skill-building methods, and established Parenting Press in 1979. She lives in Seattle.

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