Learning to share is a fundamental social skill every child needs to acquire, especially when beginning to make friends. Sharing shows empathy, patience, kindness, and other great attributes that are essential to getting along with people all through life's ups and downs.
Of course, sharing is not necessarily a default setting. One of the most common words out of a toddler’s mouth is “Mine!” So parents and caregivers need to work with children to encourage sharing and positive social interactions.
If your child has playtime with others of the same age, try these seven tips to encourage sharing:
1. Positive Reinforcement
As with just about anything you teach your young child, positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment. The easiest thing you can do to encourage sharing is to praise your child when they do it. When they share their toy, offer a friend one of their cookies, or even scoot over on the couch to give you more space to sit, thank them!
It may sound a bit silly or overkill, but it’s a simple and effective way for a young child to learn what they are supposed to do instead of being scolded for what they aren’t supposed to do. At that age, positive feedback is easier to understand.
2. Use a Timer to Take Turns
Taking turns with a timer is a good way to begin practicing sharing. It’s easier for a child to let a toy go to someone else when they know they will get it back soon. Place the timer where they can see it and hear it go off so they know when it’s time to trade back.
When they have practiced with the timer a few times, you can remove the timer and simply tell the child, “You can have this toy when Billy [or whomever] is done playing with it.” They will have built some skills with being patient at this point and will be more comfortable without a set end-time.
3. Play Sharing Games at Home
If you are the parent or caregiver of a child, practice sharing at home so they can share better in school, daycare, and with friends. A fun example would be delivering treats or goodie bags to others in the house.
Bake cookies or buy a bag of fun-size candies. Then, portion the treats into bags or put them on a plate. Walk around to everyone in the house and tell the child, who to give them to. Allow them to physically hand out the treats so that they are the ones performing the sharing action. And of course, save a couple of treats to enjoy together when all the rest have been delivered.
4. Encourage Empathy
One way to gently correct a child who is not sharing well is to remind them to be empathetic. Instead of saying “Share your toys,” you can say “How do you think your friend feels about that?” or “What can you do to cheer up your friend right now?” These questions may be enough of a prompt to encourage sharing at that moment.
If empathy is an area in which the child needs improvement, you can employ many easy ways to encourage empathy. These are as simple as explaining your own emotions vulnerably in front of the child or teaching them about different emotions. Also, try matching emotions to faces that you draw to help familiarise them with the names of feelings.
5. Put Away Favourite Toys
Some toys are special. Maybe it’s a toy a child has had for a long time, it’s a brand new toy, or it’s just something that has great sentimental value. When other children come over to play, put these kinds of toys away. Sharing these toys is different than sharing others. Children sometimes form deep attachments to objects, and sharing these can cause stress.
Imagine lending a piece of jewellery you got from a retail store vs. lending your wedding ring or a watch passed down through generations. Some things don’t need to be shared, and forcing your child to share them could be upsetting.
6. It’s Good to Say No Sometimes
An important component of sharing is learning how to set healthy boundaries. We have to know when to say “no” as well as when to say “yes.” Allow your child to say “no” sometimes when they are asked to share.
Maybe their toy is more sentimental to them than we realise. Maybe they have been looking forward to playing with this toy all day, and they have only had a little time. You aren’t always going to be there to moderate whether the child should share, so allowing them to say “no” sometimes is a good way to encourage their independence and confidence.
7. Set an Example
Parents and caregivers are the main behaviour models for children. They see how we act and they act similarly. So it’s no surprise that children who receive compassionate care are more compassionate. To give them concrete examples to observe, sit and play near your child with your own toy and ask them if they’d like to play with you. Or get yourself a snack and offer to share it with them.
Another way to model this behaviour is to point out when you are sharing with others. Make a point to say, “I’m letting my friend have some of my candy because I know it’s her favourite.” It feels a little stilted, but when children see these behaviours in their role models, it’s easier for them to understand them and replicate them.
The empathy, kindness, and patience we show when we share are essential skills for people of all ages. By encouraging these behaviors at a young age, you set your child up for success in their immediate social lives and as adults. Try a few of these tips to see which work best for your child. Remember to be observant, follow their lead, and tailor activities to their progress.
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare and Preschool, with facilities serving families at multiple locations in the Chicagoland area.