The first time you witness your toddler playing with another kid, you may find yourself surprised by their lack of interest or inability to share toys with others. Rest assured, sharing and playing collaboratively are developmental milestones that may not arrive until your toddler is four years old. You’ll definitely want to practice having some patience with your young toddler or baby as you learn to navigate playdates with other kids but there are additional steps you can take to help ease your child into learning to share and play with others.
How to Teach Toddlers to Share
It is important to recognize that teaching your toddler to share may only go so far, depending on where they are developmentally. However, it is definitely helpful to take some steps to make it easier on your child when they’re in situations that require them to share their toys (such as during a playdate with another kid).
1. Prepare for Playdates Ahead of Time
If you’re preparing to host another child at your home for a playdate, it is important to prepare ahead of time. If your child has any specific toys that they are attached to, it may be a good idea to put them away beforehand so that they don’t get upset if and when other kids try to play with them. Take out some toys that your child doesn’t typically play with or use larger toys that they can engage in together (such as a foldable ball pit or play tent). Sometimes it’s even better to plan playdates at a location outside of the home, such as the park or library since your child won’t have to deal with the discomfort of having a new kid in their space. Once they’re more used to certain friends, playdates at home will get easier.
Also, you should talk with your child prior to playdates to help mentally prepare them for situations in which they’ll be required to share. Explain to them that there will be other kids to play with and ask if they have any specific toys that they’d like to share with their friends.
2. Practice Clear Communication
Once your child reaches a certain point in their development, communication should be a pretty effective way to help them with sharing. When you notice your child not wanting to share, you can calmly explain the importance of sharing to them. Some toddlers get really upset when they see other kids playing with their toys. Make sure your child knows that just because someone else is playing with their toy, doesn’t mean the toy is going away forever. Remind them that they will get the toy back once the other kid is finished with it.
Communication is also a great way to reflect on situations in which your child didn’t want to share and it upset them. This can help them identify with any negative feelings they have regarding sharing to help them process them and move through them.
You can also use communication to reinforce sharing when you notice your child engaging in positive behavior. Talk with your child about sharing when they practice sharing with you and try to say more than just “good job”. Explain to them that it makes you happy to see them sharing with you or say something like, “I’m sure your friend really appreciated it when you let them play with your toy today.”
3. Set a Timer When it’s Time to Pass off a Toy
Another helpful tip you could try involves setting a timer for toddlers and explaining that when the timer goes off, that means it is time to pass the toy off to a friend. This can be an effective way to help toddlers share because it makes sharing feel more like a game. It can also work since toddlers respond well to the process of counting down (i.e. “in five minutes it’s time to give that toy to your friend”). This offers them some warning, rather than having to suddenly give up a toy at that moment. You can use this method during playdates or you can practice it with your child when you are playing with them at home.
4. Understand What is Developmentally Normal
Have some patience with your child because there is only so much you can do to facilitate their learning of how to share. Remember that most children are not developmentally ready to share until the age of three or four, and every kid learns at their own pace. You should never try to force your child to share because this can actually have the opposite effect. If you take a toy away from your child and make them give it to another child, they may think that this means it is okay to take toys away from others. With time, your child will understand the concept of sharing but they will benefit from having the space to figure it out without too much intervention. Never try to force anything but practice gentle guidance instead.
5. Set a Positive Example
One of the most effective ways to teach children anything is to set an example yourself. Most parents are well aware of the fact that their children are watching their every move and modeling much of their own behavior off of what they observe at home. Lead by example by sharing with your child; always offer them bites of food from your plate and practice sharing when playing together.
You can also practice negotiating with your child when you run into situations where they’re holding something that you don’t want them to have. Rather than simply saying “no” and taking the item away, try finding a different item they can hold instead and do a trade-off. This can help show your child that sharing items isn’t a black and white process. Just because they give up an item to someone else doesn’t mean that they end up with nothing in return. Negotiating with your child will also teach them respect, helping them work with other kids in the future.
When Does Sharing Become Easier for Children?
Toddlers start to grasp the concept of sharing around the age of three or four since this is when they’re starting to understand empathy and have more concern about being liked or getting in trouble. Up until this age, toddlers tend to be more egocentric meaning they’re more concerned with their own needs, rather than those of others.
Two-year-olds tend to have a hard time sharing since they’re still learning to identify with their own selves and their own possessions. By deciding that an item is “mine” they are figuring out their own identity. Since two-year-olds don’t have a great understanding of time yet, they might feel concerned that if an item is taken from them it will be gone forever. It is around preschool age when children start to understand time better and they can recognize their ability to put a toy or activity down and return to it later on.
How to Handle Conflict Between Toddlers
Keep in mind that your toddler will likely experience conflict with other kids at some point, whether you’re there to intervene or not. Although this can be upsetting or challenging for some parents, it is important to remember that conflict resolution is a great learning experience for toddlers. If you are in a situation in which you’re witnessing your toddler conflicting with another child, then you’ll want to make sure to not intervene too much.
If you jump in front of your child and attempt to resolve the conflict for them, then you’ll hinder their ability to learn conflict resolution on their own. Rather than trying to solve the issue for your child, you can offer suggestions and watch as they attempt to resolve the issue on their own. For example, you could say, “I see that you don’t want your friend holding that toy, is there a different toy that you’d like for them to hold?”
It is important to step in in situations when physical conflict arises. If children begin hitting or biting, you’ll want to intervene to prevent anyone from getting hurt and show that physical violence is not appropriate in any situation. You definitely want to avoid instilling shame in your child when they act out or are having a hard time sharing.
Most of the time toddlers act out for a good reason, whether it be developmental or a need for attention. Make sure all of your child’s needs have been met if they seem to be having a particularly hard time playing with other kids. Make sure they aren’t hungry, overtired, or feeling under the weather. All of these factors can come into play and cause children to act out in an attempt to ask for help.
Toddlerhood is a special time for children and parents. As your baby transitions into the “big kid” stage, there are so many changes happening rapidly for them. If you’re feeling like this stage is particularly challenging or having a hard time figuring out how to teach your toddler to share, make sure to remain calm and patient with your child and understand that they will change and grow at their own rate.