It’s a MINEfield!! Small children and learning to share!

Sharing makes the world go round and oils the wheels of social relationships!!  It’s in our DNA! So perhaps this is why it can be so excruciatingly difficult when we witness our children refusing to share, grabbing a belonging back or having a complete meltdown when asked to share.  

This blog focusses on when children can begin to understand the concept of sharing and how to support them developing into generous, kind people.

The Research

Developmental psychology research clearly tells us that most children younger than 3 simply cannot understand the concept of sharing.  It usually takes children to reach the ages of 3 ½ or 4 before they can grasp the concept properly.  However, surveys such as Zero to Three showed that just under half of all parents expect that a child should have mastered sharing by age 2!!! 

So, it’s entirely developmentally appropriate for a two year old to feel unfairly treated, confused, hurt and angry when sharing is forced upon them and to express this as only a toddler can.  The research also shows that forced sharing too early can result in a delay in them developing healthy generosity and sharing skills in the long-term. Children who feel secure in their ownership of belongings and choose when, and when not, to share develop increased tendency to be generous.

Learning at the right time

Sharing is a milestone like any other.  Just as you wouldn’t berate a newborn for not smiling or a 6 month old baby for not trying to walk or an 18mth old for soiling their nappy, so too it’s important you bring the same understanding to learning to share.  

However, it is important that they learn to share eventually as it helps children make, and hold onto, friends and enhances social experiences by helping them manage group situations cooperatively. It teaches them to manage frustration and disappointment and learn about give and take and fairness.  It is the beginning of teaching them that other people’s feelings and needs matter as well as their own.

But it doesn’t happen overnight. Trying to teach a new developmental stage is always difficult and requires lots of practice and repetition, especially if started before they are ready.  

The Developing Brain

At some stage under 5’s begin to understand that they can make some choices for themselves, such as what TV programme to watch or book they would like to read.  What they can’t do is appreciate that everyone else doesn’t want the same as them.  This is because the areas of the brain that deal with empathy are still being wired together.  Small children simply don’t have the neural connections that allow them to understand situations from another’s perspective.  They can only experience things from their own perspective.

They also haven’t fully developed a verbal ability to express their own feelings and desires.  Negotiating complex thoughts around sharing is simply beyond the ability of small children so the two word expressions of “No, mine!” or “Give back!” is often as good as its going to get!

But around age three, these areas of the brain can begin to get connected and a bit of support along the way really helps connect the dots.

How to support your child to share

Children’s first teachers are, of course, their parents or main caregivers.  Modelling good sharing and turn-taking in your family is the first step in helping your child master sharing.  Encourage them to begin their sharing journey with you and give them lots of praise when they do, explaining how sharing makes both them, and you, have more fun.  

When your child is going into a situation you know they will be expected to share (and they are developmentally ready), prepare them for this, explain what might be expected and talk to them about how they feel about this. 

Everyone (including most adults) has things that are too precious to share so it’s a good idea to remove these from particular situations. 

Some children can take a little longer than others to master this developmental milestone.  While your child is still in the struggle, you can act as the bridge between them and other children, reminding them of how and when to share as well as being the cheerleader when they manage it.

Help your child manage the big emotions that will come when they’re struggling with sharing.  Model empathy yourself “I see you are so upset that Luca is taking a turn with the drum” “It’s really hard when you have to wait”.  Remember, when they are in full meltdown they cannot take in any learning, so only when they are soothed and calm, reassure them that they will get a turn again and so on.

This is also a good time to start introducing behavioural boundaries and how to express big feelings appropriately.  For example, crying and anger are acceptable and understandable responses to a situation that is fully experienced by them as unfair and unreasonable – but hitting is not.

Provide under 3’s with lots of social interactions which don’t involve the need to share such as dancing or none sharing type games. 

Redirect or distract your child or another when you can see both are wanting the same thing.

The key is to remember sharing is incredibly hard and painful for under 5s.  

Logical explanations will not get you very far but acknowledging the confusion, the pain, the sadness and anger by being present, calm, empathic and kind is the first, and most valuable, step. 

Step two is limited teaching moments about boundaries (no hitting) and the fundamentals of how sharing makes the world go round and benefits everyone in the group in the long run.

If any of you have got any other tips or questions – please share them with us!!

Written by Kate, Director of Purely Baby & ThinkWise

Kate is a Child and Family Therapist with 15+ years experience. Under-graduate degree in Human Development; Masters in Counselling; Post Grad Dip in Child Psychotherapy.

Take a look at our previous post, ‘Masked Faces From A Babies Perspective’ here.