It turns out we've been wrong about that 'sharing is caring' motto. The authors of Terrific Toddlers explain how to prevent your little one from being selfish, and telling them to share is not the best answer. 

By Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush
November 29, 2018
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Toddlers Fighting Over Water Bottle
Credit: AlohaHawaii/Shutterstock

“Sharing is caring!” We hear it all the time. It’s written on posters in school hallways. It’s spoken by your children’s favorite TV characters.

But, right now, your toddler’s screaming, “Mine!” and you’re about to say, “No, no, please share.” But we’re butting in to say, “No, no, hold off!” Why? Because: Toddlers simply have no idea yet what sharing means. They can’t master something they can’t understand. So caring for our toddlers means not asking them to share!

But shouldn’t we be fostering sharing? Sure… and that’s exactly what you're doing, by waiting until your toddler is mentally and emotionally ready to see sharing as a caring gesture, and not as, “Aaah!! How could you take it away?!”

We don’t expect a six-month-old to walk as a 12-month-old can, or a one-year-old to “use your words” like a two-year-old can, and yet from the moment they begin grabbing another toddler’s board book we start telling them to share. We’re all fooled by toddlers’ speaking and toddling—and by their emphatic agendas!—into thinking that they’re farther along in their understanding of themselves in the world than they are. And a concept like sharing is simply beyond them during this phase.

Why is that? A few reasons:  

Toddlers don’t yet know for sure that they are separate and individual people. They are testing this idea—building a sense of self—in large part by achieving a sense of ownership: “I own, therefore I am.” When they grab and hold on for dear life and need everything all for themselves, they’re not being selfish—they’re being scientists testing the hypothesis that they are individuals. The world is their laboratory, and “All Mine!” is one of the experiments they’re conducting.

To further complicate matters, they don’t yet understand that things can belong to other people, too, not just to them!

Then there’s the concept of time—toddlers don’t yet have one. Therefore, to them, giving anything up means giving it up for good. Even structured turn-taking (“one more minute, then it’s your turn”) can be a huge mindbender for someone with no sense of time. Sharing, which is even less defined in time, is virtually impossible.  

And then we come to…. impulse control. To illustrate, behold the infamous Toddler’s Creed: “If I want it, it’s mine! If I used it yesterday, it’s mine! If I can take it away from you, it’s mine!” They want what they want when they want it—add another child, some toys, and an adult talking about “sharing,” and you’ve got a combustible situation in your toddler’s laboratory.

But, you may argue, my toddler happily gives me Cheerios, and hands over toys when we’re playing — isn’t that sharing? Umm, well, it’s part of that selfhood science experiment we mentioned above. When it happens, you can acknowledge the gesture, then maybe show appreciation by genuinely sharing it back, if your toddler hasn’t already re-claimed it… Toddler scientists will be practicing this social/emotional skill with great diligence over the next year or so, until brain development, socialization, and the desire for friends opens the way to genuine sharing.

But until they’re ready (around age three or so), trying to make sharing happen can actually backfire. Nobody likes having things taken away, especially when they can’t understand why. “Share” will become a bad word, the act of “sharing” something to avoid, and thus (as child development experts note) “selfishness” will last longer.

What to do before toddlers understand sharing? Two things:

  1. Label and validate the emotion of the moment. If somebody’s toy was taken, say: “You didn’t like it when JoJo took your toy away,” because it’s calming to feel understood. Then say, “Next time, hold on tight,” because it’s their right to hold onto what they need. To the grabber, suggest, “Next time, ask, ‘Can I use it?’” You may find yourself using these phrases a lot over time… Good! These simple interpersonal lessons take time to sink in.
  2. Model sharing for your toddler. Toddlers look to us to explain their world. Show that you enjoy sharing, and they’ll want to “get there,” too.

Don’t worry, have patience—it really won’t be long before your toddler is able to understand that “sharing is caring.” Think “self-hood” rather than “self-ish,” model generosity, and let them hold on tight for now. They’ll be more willing to let go and share their stuff when they’re ready!

Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush are the authors of Terrific Toddlers (Magination Press, children's book division of American Psychological Association).

Carol Zeavin holds a master’s degrees in education and special education from Bank Street College and worked with infants and toddlers for nearly a decade as head teacher at Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center and Barnard’s Toddler Development Center.

Rhona Silverbush studied psychology and theater at Brandeis University and law at Boston College Law School. She currently coaches actors, writes, tutors, and consults for families of children and teens with learning differences and special needs.