Q&A: My Toddler Won’t Share!
My 18-month-old-son “shares” by handing me something and then snatching it back. What kind of kid am I raising? Are there proven ways to teach a child to share?
Answer by Julie Gamberg and Holly Kretschmar (Parents & Educators)
The behavior you describe –let’s call it “playing backsies” –is absolutely normal, developmentally appropriate behavior for your toddler. It’s admirable that you’re concerned about him growing up to be a considerate kid, but don’t push the concept of sharing yet. There’s a danger of sabotaging your best intentions by pushing your child too early. To avoid making him resentful and nervous about boundaries, let him experiment with the concept of giving and taking. He’ll learn from your reactions and you’ll avoid pushing him into behavior he’s not ready for.
To help your son make strides towards the next level of sharing, narrate his behavior, to help him develop language for–and ultimately the concept of–his actions. For example, you might say, “Thanks for giving me your ducky! I know you love your ducky. OK, now you want your ducky just for you. Thanks for sharing!” You can also model the behavior you’d like to see, and as before, narrate it to him so that he develops an understanding of what sharing means. You could try saying “Daddy’s reading this book right now. I see you want to share it. I’d be happy to give you a turn. When you’re done looking at it, I’d like to read it again. Thanks–it was fun to share my book with you.” Focusing on turn taking is a concrete way to illustrate the abstract concept of sharing. Over time, as your son learns from your reactions and sees you modeling sharing behavior, he’ll understand the good feeling and social rewards that come from giving.
Children change so quickly so if you can, do some speed reading every six months or so (we know parents only have minutes to spare for reading) about your son’s developmental level. This will help keep your expectations in check with what he’s capable of and, most importantly, so you know you’re doing nothing wrong in these scenarios. Although they’re somewhat dated and we don’t always agree with their parenting philosophy, we still find the series by Dr. Ames and Dr. Ilg, called “Your One-Year-Old”, “Your Two-Year-Old,” etc., useful for understanding a child’s development. It sounds like you have a healthy, well-adjusted child who enjoys interacting with you and seems to be on track developmentally. Congratulations!
Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.
Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)
I think there are actually two questions here. The first is how to best handle the giving and snatching away your son seems to enjoy right now, which I think has little to do with sharing and more to do with exploring his power. The second is the broader question about how to raise children who are generous and can share with others.
1st – The giving and snatching away
I don’t think this is in any way a sign of your son’s inability to share properly. He is playing with and learning about the things that are most fascinating him right now (power, control, connection, and independence.) Think of this as an opportunity to begin to teach him about his own power and autonomy while gently developing his ability to respect the power and autonomy of others.
An 18-month-old is in the beginning of the stage called the rapprochement or omnipotence (this stage typically begins at around 14 months and last till 3 or 4 years). He has realized that he has power and is separate from you so he’s trying to understand your power and who’s in control.
In the beginning of the rapprochement phase a child is moving from an unconditional relationship and an omnipotent identity (he’s the only one with power) into an understanding of transactional relationships and an interdependent identity (both you and he have power). What better way to exercise his feelings of omnipotence and test the waters of transactional relations than by trying to control giving and taking things?
Here are some practical suggestions:
The next time your son “gives you something” you can ask him, “Is this the game where you take it away from me or is this real giving that I can keep?” If he seems unsure or confused tell him, “It’s okay if you want to play the give and take away game. I just need to know if we’re playing the game or if it’s real.” Don’t accept what he’s giving you until he tells you “game” or “real”.
If your son chooses “real giving” and then tries to snatch the thing away you should not allow him to take it and instead say to him, “Since you really gave it to me you’ll need to ask my permission if you want it back.” Insist that he asks you nicely without tantruming or screaming. In the weeks that follow you can begin to add a delay in returning the item perhaps saying, “Well I’m not done playing with it. I will give it back when I’m finished.
If your son chooses “the game” then you can accept the item and allow him to snatch it from your hands a moment later. You can even feign being mad or upset. He will likely find your reaction funny or fascinating. He may then give the item back to you in order to see the change in your expression. In this way your son has a chance to act out the drama of his feelings of omnipotence and explore the power of giving and taking as a “game” within his safe relationship with you.
Once you’ve established the pattern of him telling you “real” or “game” when he gives you things then you should start to have times when you tell him, “I don’t want to play the game right now. You can really give it to me, but I don’t want to play the give and take away game.” Gradually you can increase the moments when you’re willing to play the give and snatch away game until you’re only willing to have him really give you things (this can be over several weeks or several months, it’s up to you.)
All these exchanges are rehearsals for your son’s successful relationships with peers and other adults. Slowly he’ll learn the transactional nature of relationships and how to effectively choose what he wants while understanding the needs of others. He’ll gradually be developing his abilities for self-regulation, deferred gratification and respectful social interaction.
2nd – Teaching children to share
I think it’s important that we don’t force our children to share.
Having said that, I think there are several things we can do to raise compassionate, independent-thinking, generous children who will most likely share with others.
Model sharing – let your children see you share with them and others, not because you’re “being good” but because you enjoy it.
Respect the child’s autonomy and right to make their own decisions – don’t tell your son that he should be wanting to share, that sharing is right and not sharing is wrong, or that you only approve of him when he shares. When children are told what they should be feeling (love, empathy, compassion, a desire to share) and they don’t yet have those feelings, what is actually created is shame and guilt in the child because they don’t feel what they’re supposed to. Acknowledge his power to choose not to share. The less a child is forced, coerced or manipulated into sharing the more likely they are to develop an intrinsic, and joyful, motivation to share.
Don’t protect your children from the natural consequences of their decisions – Just because you support your child’s right to choose not to share doesn’t mean there won’t be times when refusing to share leads to an unwanted consequence. For instance, you may have a rule that when a friend comes over he must take out one toy he’s willing to share for each toy he isn’t willing to share. He may choose not to share at all but that also means he can’t bring out any toys when his friend is over. Or you can have him help you create a box of “share toys” for his friends to use when they come over. There can be places when he doesn’t have to share at all (home with sister), and other places where if he wants to stay he must be willing to share (public park.)
Discuss and reflect with them about their choices and the outcomes – When natural consequences occur because of his decision not to share (you have to talk him home from the park because he refused to allow others to use the swing, or his friend became upset because he wouldn’t share his toy) discuss and reflect with him about what happened and whether he’s happy with the outcome. “Why was Alex mad at you?” “Do you like it when he’s mad at you?” “Are you happy about how things turned out?” “What could you do instead to get a better outcome?”
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, behavior specialists, teachers and administrators in the methods he’s developed. During the last twenty years he’s been a teacher for 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions was published in September 2010 and is available at Amazon.com.
You can email them with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org