Sharing and Young Children

In groups of children, and sometimes in families, getting enough of what you want can be an issue. It is tempting to respond to a child not wanting to give up a toy by imploring (or demanding or lecturing) that they must share. How do children come to understand sharing, and thereby learn to do it? First and foremost, letting children be the recipient of adult sharing (“I’m sharing my cookie with you”) is one of the most simple and effective ways to begin to teach the concept of sharing.
One of the most compelling pieces of research about sharing that I’ve seen says that young children can come to understand “sharing” as “giving up what you want” because that might just be what we are asking children to do when we ask that they share with another child. Is that what we want to teach young children? It might seem that we do in the heat of the moment, but from the perspective of a whole life that will be lived with this learning at the foundation, it doesn’t seem healthy for that to always be the result.
On the flip side, we don’t want children to become powerful and self-centered with toys in their social play, so a response if necessary—so what is going to be the most helpful? In most circumstances it is appropriate for a child to get to finish what he is doing with a toy without being forced to give it up. One teacher shared this experience with two children playing with toy cats: “One child was playing with 7 cats and one child only had 1. I asked the child with 7 cats if she needed all her cats. The answer was a definite yes, increasing the sadness of the other child. I then asked the child with 7 cats to give the child with 1 cat some of her cats WHEN she didn’t need all of her cats. With the pressure being off the child with more cats, she gave the other child so many cats that now the scale was tipped the other direction—and both children were happy with this result.” The fact of sharing is an adult suggestion; the child could choose when the sharing would happen.
You might be wondering if there are ever times when it is appropriate to impose sharing on children. There are aspects of sharing that I think require more overt adult management. That happens when 1) children try to exclude other children from play with materials in hurtful ways and 2) when a child is never finished and, therefore, can never share. In the first scenario, the child excluded from play with materials should be supported by adults. Sometimes that support might be helping the child find another set of materials to use; most of the time an appropriate response will help children find some role within the play that she is trying to enter with similar or related materials. In the second scenario where a child never quite gets around to sharing, the next time the materials come out the child who never got a turn previously gets the first turn. These are appropriate ways for adults to manage sharing and turn-taking. Children come to see these adult actions as “fairness” when we do a good job of it!
Does everything have to be shared? This is where home and school are different. All school materials belong to everyone. At home, certain things belong to certain people. It is ok for a child to get to decide that a toy is not a sharing toy when friends visit—so long as the same child decides that a good number of things will be shared. Parents can help children make these decisions.
The early childhood years are birth to age 8. Throughout these years, children are learning to see and understand situations from the perspective of another person (for example, how it feels to not have what you need because someone else has it). Perspective-taking is a major developmental task for young children and it doesn’t happen consistently for children until they are approaching middle childhood. It is that hard and it takes that much experience and adult support for sharing to be learned.
As in most issues of teaching or parenting, knowing and respecting development is critical to finding a strategy that is helpful to children. In the case of sharing, understanding what young children want and need developmentally and applying this understanding in our response to these common social situations means giving children opportunities to choose. When we respect a child’s choice, we can structure the support we provide children in ways that help children build relationships with other people—and share. And that is an outcome that works for everyone.