Wouldn't it be great if you overheard your child say to one of his friends, "Sure, you can play with my favorite truck anytime"? Unfortunately, playdates that civilized are still years away. Three- and 4-year-olds tend to cling passionately to their possessions. "Preschoolers are so focused on their own wants and needs that sharing just isn't a priority," explains Ann Easterbrooks, Ph.D., chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts.
Even though kids this age usually aren't eager to share, they can be surprisingly generous when adults encourage them and set a good example. "We had a big laugh the other day when my 4-year-old son, Gunner, said to his grandfather, 'I can't share your medicine, but you can have some of my apple,' " says Robin Schecter, of New York City. "We need to teach kids to share," stresses Donald K. Freedheim, Ph.D., founding director of the Schubert Center for Child Development at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. "A child is like a foreigner who has to learn the customs of our country."
While toddlers believe that everything is "mine," 3- and 4-year-olds usually understand that only certain things belong to them. Increasingly independent, they're developing a stronger sense of self—and tend to see their favorite items as extensions of themselves. As a result, they're naturally overprotective of belongings.
At first, kids share because their parents, caregivers, or teachers tell them to. In order to start sharing voluntarily, a child needs to be able to empathize—to understand, for instance, that a playmate yearns for a particular action figure just as much as he does. But this cognitive and emotional skill is just starting to develop in kids this age. Over time, your child will become more generous because it will make her feel good to see another child happy, Dr. Freedheim explains. She'll also realize that if she shares what she has with a friend, she's likely to get something back in exchange—a win-win situation. Here are some steps you can take to help the process along.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.