Why toddlers should not be forced to share

This was originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn

The sharing epidemic is taking over: parents from Central Park to the Brooklyn Library are charged with helicoptering. They are either too involved in children’s play or not giving children enough time to play on their own. As Erika Christakis puts it in an NPR article that come out earlier this month, “we're underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that's because we're not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others.”

I co-facilitate RIE® classes as an Intern where toddlers are allowed to play freely without the expectation to share. Many times, I find myself helping caregivers and parents understand the reasons why toddlers should NOT be expected to share. Here are a four of them:

1. Sharing is a complex issue and toddlers are not emotionally or cognitively ready for it. Toddlers have few basic self-control strategies; their brains are not hardwired for it yet. Children up to three years predominantly rely on caregivers and parents to regulate their behavior and emotions. Starting at three years, children develop the ability to control impulses, shift attention, and wait for rewards. Therefore, for a two-year-old, resisting an impulse like grabbing a toy coming alive in the hands of another child is nearly impossible. This does not mean your child is selfish; accept that it’s a phase. 

2. The struggle over toys creates stronger relationships with other children. Commonly accepted social norms, such as introducing ourselves to strangers and then shaking hands, have little meaning to toddlers. Instead, they rely on play to learn about each other. Ultimately, struggles over toys tend to reinforce and reward toddlers’ relationships with each other. In my classroom, the toddlers who seem to have the most struggles over a toy also tend to want to spend the most time with each other. Give them the chance to explore and learn about each other rather than prematurely separating them. 

3. Children learn a lot from not getting their way, and disappointment is a valuable skill for future learning.  Rarely does a conflict over a toy result in aggression in the form of yelling, pushing, or hitting. However, giving up a desired object may lead a toddler to be upset for a few minutes. Although it’s difficult to bear, it’s not your job to fix the situation by retrieving the toy or scolding the other parent. Your role is to support the child by saying, “I see you're upset.” Once his or her feelings are acknowledged and validated, they can move past the loss more easily. Further, this reaction is paving the way to a valuable life-skill: learning to cope with disappointment in a healthy and constructive way.  

4. We place unnecessary value judgments on children when we force them to share.  A phrase like, “it’s just a ball, why don’t you share it” delegitimizes the strong feelings that a toddler has about that ball in the present moment (which is where they live). Further, we tend to impose our sense of justice by viewing the child who relinquished the toy as the “victim” and the child who gained the toy as the “aggressor” when this is really their way of learning about each other. In these situations, it would be helpful to sportscast rather than label. For example, “Charlotte, you had the ball and let go of it, so now Lucas has the ball.” This is very different from “Lucas is acting like a bully and grabbed the ball from you.” Sportscasting helps both toddlers understand the context of the situation without adding a label that unnecessarily defines or diminishes their feelings.

A common question is “how will my toddler learn to share if I don’t teach him?” I would answer, it’s just a phase… this too shall pass. Adults mistakenly think we must teach young children to share when it’s a skill they'll acquire when they’re older and if their caregivers demonstrate respectful behavior. In other words, toddlers are watching grown-ups all the time and they learn from what they see. Generosity should not be forced on toddlers -- it can easily be modeled instead.