Learning to Share

The topic of “sharing” comes up pretty often, in conversations with other parents in real life or online, because every young child eventually has a moment when she yanks a toy away from another child or gets her own toy yanked away.  What often puzzles me about discussions of sharing and taking turns is that so many parents talk as if these are concepts that apply only to interactions between children. It seems to me that as a parent, you share things with your child and take turns using things with your child, so everyday life is full of opportunities to model and teach sharing.

I often hear claims that kids under 3 or 4 just don’t comprehend sharing, so there is no point trying to teach it. Yet I started to teach (consciously) about sharing and turn-taking when Nicholas was just six months old.  When he started eating solid foods, we had a lot of interactions like this: “Oh, you want to share my applesauce? Okay, a bite for you…a bite for me…your turn…my turn…your turn…my–hey, don’t grab; this is my bite. NOW it is your turn….”

Around 10 months he enjoyed a game in which he would clutch an object and look very pleased.
I would say, “You are holding the book!”
He would give it to me.
I would say, “I am holding the book!”
He would hold out his hands
I would give it to him and say, “You are holding the book!”
Et cetera.
After a few months this turned into a game of practicing manners:
“Please give me that book.”
“Iss fo oo!”
“Thank you!”
“Yelgum… Peeez?”
“This is for you!”
“Enk oo!”
“You’re welcome!… Can I have the book, please?”
and so on.  He seemed entranced by the idea of learning how to get things and when to give things.  We played this game frequently until about 15 months, by which time he was using the appropriate gestures and syllables in real-life contexts as well and was often responding favorably when we asked him to give us things.

He’s not quite so cooperative now, at two-and-a-half, when he’s got a short fuse and a strong sense of what he wants…but he still is relatively good at sharing compared to many kids his age, and I think the foundations are set for a lifelong good attitude about it.  He is so STARTLED when a kid snatches away his toy without asking and won’t give it back–not angry so much as blinking in surprise as if a law of physics has been violated!  After a moment, he says in a very firm voice, “Don’t take mine train! That not nice! Is not you turn!” and tries to get it back, sometimes grabbily, but all his motions are focused on getting the toy, not bashing the kid.  When he’s angling for another kid’s toy, he’ll say, “I need turn with train, please?” or if he’s very eager, “My turn for train!” and he grabs it, but if the other kid flips out he hands it back, albeit reluctantly and with another plea for it within one minute!

So I disagree that toddlers don’t understand sharing and can’t do it.  It just looks a little different. And I hypothesize (based on my experiments with one participant!) that the earlier parents start talking about it and demonstrating appropriate behavior in their own interactions with a child, the earlier he/she will start applying the same rules to interacting with other kids.


UPDATE: In a week when I don’t have time to write something new, I’m linking this article to Works-for-Me Wednesday.  Nicholas is seven-and-a-half now and still pretty good at sharing.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Share

  1. One thing I’ve noticed among children in recent years as I’ve interacted with them is how often they use the word “mine”. This is interesting to me because I grew up with very little sense of “mine”. I didn’t even have “my” own bedroom until I was something like seven years old. I think concepts of individual and collective “ownership” have something to do with culture. (Yes, eventually I did adopt a typically American attitude about “mine” while growing up.)

    You might find this recent article thought-provoking: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/07/02/120702crbo_books_kolbert

  2. Funny, I distinctly remember playing a game with one of my younger cousins when she was little. We were bouncing a ball back and forth and would say, “Please pass me the ball,” then, “Thank you,” and the other person would say, “You’re welcome. Please pass me the ball,” and so on. I didn’t think of it as a sharing game per se, just as learning to speak politely, but certainly it is good for teaching sharing as well. As always, I love your insights into how children can understand and learn things much sooner than many people think they can.

  3. Pingback: Impulse Control and Understanding Consequences | The Earthling's Handbook

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