Can I have your car?  No, really, can I have your car?  I mean, I really want it and I am asking nicely… doesn’t that mean you should be a decent person and hand me the keys?

How about your computer?  You’re not using it right now, so I can just have it, for an undetermined period of time until I’m done with it, right?

I’m pretty sure you should let me, otherwise someone might think you’re a selfish brat and we don’t want that, so you better just do it.  You don’t want your friends to think you’re not a kind, generous person, do you?

Doesn’t sound so friendly and cooperative when it’s put in adult terms, does it?  So then, why do we force our children to live by this code?

Here is a scenario that is pretty much the same issue; Johnny, age 3, is playing on a car.  Lilly, age 3, wants the car. Johnny is ignoring Lilly, who is pulling on the car because she wants it.  Lilly is crying because she isn’t being given the toy, Johnny begins to yell because it is his.  Johnny’s mom gets upset with him for not being nice.  Lilly’s mom asks Johnny if her daughter can have a turn.  Johnny says no.  Johnny’s mom makes him get up and give up the toy to be polite.  Johnny cries because it was his toy and he was playing with it.  Lilly is smiling and happy now, having been given a turn.

Do you think Johnny is learning to be nice and polite by giving the toy to Lilly?  Do you really think Lilly learned the value of taking turns?  What do we really think this REALLY teaches them?  To be compassionate?  To understand that others have needs and those needs should be respected?  To be willing to sacrifice our own wants for the joy of giving to others?

No.  None of that.  Absolutely none of that is what is learned when your force a toddler to hand over something they are actively playing with to another child who walks up and tries to take it away.  We may think we are doing the right thing by easing a situation that could turn into a dual meltdown nightmare… we may think we are preventing the tiny tot version of WWIII and making the OTHER mommy smile as her child gets her way and we may feel good about our choice because the other mom feels that we did the right thing and if other moms approve, we feel good about our choices, but in reality, all we are teaching our children through these forced sharing situations, is to give up, give in and respect others’ needs more than their own.

He is also learning that YOU believe he is a bad child and that punishment may be coming if he does not sacrifice his toy, game or activity to another child.  This does not teach him to care about the other child, this teaches him that you don’t care about his needs or wants and that you would rather he be upset than to see some other child unhappy.   Now, do you REALLY want your child to feel hurt?  Of course not.  Do you really NOT care about his needs?  Oh come on, of COURSE you care about his needs!!  In fact, it’s his needs in the long term that make you react this way, right?  All you are doing is trying to help him understand that he has to cooperate with people.  He has to be empathetic to other’s needs and he has to feel compassion and he should want to be generous.  He will have a miserable adulthood full of entitlement issues and selfishness if he doesn’t learn this lesson!

But he’s a toddler.

That is not what he is learning right now.  In a few years, he could totally understand that, but not now.  Right now, all he sees is mommy made him sad by giving something away that brings him joy and he doesn’t understand why. His feelings are hurt and the other child gets to learn that instant gratification is an excellent feeling and that it’s absolutely okay to walk up and demand something from someone else and expect to be given whatever they want.

We judge a child, too harshly in my opinion, when they don’t just hand over an item or let another child take a turn on a ride at the park, naturally and of their own free will to their peers.  Most people don’t really understand how the toddler brain works, so, we make wild assumptions along the lines of; whatever feels best to everyone and causes the least amount of drama should be the best option.  But is it?  I mean, I could prevent a WHOLE lot of drama by handing my three year old a cookie every time he wanted something he couldn’t have, so I’m not really sure that’s the best answer.

The bottom line on sharing in my opinion and what I try to teach my kids, is – if they are actively playing with a toy or riding a ride or using something, that is their item for the time being.  When they are done, another child can have it.  If the other child comes up to my child asking for it, if my child is actively playing with the item, he does not have to hand it over.  I mean, why teach a child to “ask politely” if they get all bent out of shape when the answer is “no”?  Does the polite lesson end if the answer isn’t the preferred answer of, “of course, here you go!”?  If so, I’m not sure that’s really a very good lesson…

When it all boils down, what we are talking about is teaching a toddler empathy, compassion and generosity.  Mamas, seriously… these are concepts that a child of toddler age truly cannot fathom in the complex, social laws we have in our modern world.  They CAN understand the raw ideas however, so we have to simplify and put things in a context that breaks down the individual issues for them and teaches them the desired reactions and responses, one at a time.

The behavior of empathetic, helping, social behavior is called “being prosocial”.  This behavior of being prosocial is something a toddler has to learn from US, not through punishment.  We cannot expect him to become empathetic to another’s needs by forcing them to comply and be “pretend kind” to some other child because if they don’t, they will be sent to a time out.  That will teach them resentment and confusion.  NOT kindness.  So we have to start from a different place, entirely.

We have to teach them, by encouraging this behavior of empathy, through our own actions.  There are several ways we can do this, through games, activities at home and here are a few that you are probably already doing:

Helping mom and dad at home

By helping mom and dad at home by putting away their socks in the sock drawer or throwing away an orange peel in the trash can, putting their dish in the sink or sweeping the floor, a child learns that his actions can make others happy.  Now, we can’t just force the chore on them as a demand because that’s their job, they are the child and that’s what they were told to do.  It can’t sound like, “Go throw away your banana peel!”  That teaches compliance.  NOT empathy.  It has to be, “hey sweetheart, it would be super helpful to mama if you could throw this away, can you please do that for me?”  Or, “It would make mama really happy if you could help by putting your socks away”.  Then, when they return, big thank-yous, hugs and kisses and exclamations about what an awesome job they did and how helpful they were to lock in the lesson with a feeling of gratitude, love and how that looks in their brains, is;

Doing something when asked = happy feelings= I’m gonna do that again!

Another issue is that we assume toddlers can all speak one another’s languages.  In reality, that is really not the case.  They have a hard time with language as it is at these young ages, how can we expect them to understand the behavior and words of another child who is ALSO having a hard time grasping those things?

In a study by Margarita Svetlova, Sara R. Nichols, & Celia A. Brownell at University of Pittsburgh that focused on prosocial behavior in toddlers, they determined that ultimately, if you want a child to become empathetic toward the needs of others, you must teach them what other’s needs are.  We cannot expect a child to just know what another child is feeling and we cannot expect a child to just hand over a toy because another child is standing there screaming.   In this study, it was determined that often, a toddler had no idea what their peer wanted and was, themselves, completely confused and upset because of this.  You may be thinking, “well, it’s pretty obvious if a child comes up and points at a toy and then cries when the other child doesn’t hand it over”… but you are thinking like an adult with adult social skills.  Stop trying to project your comfort zone upon your child and consider this excerpt;

“This is at odds with how parents think about toddlers in part because we parents are obsessed with sharing. It’s true that toddlers are not especially altruistic. They don’t want to give up their toy to another kid in the sandbox.”… “… when cooperation or assistance is required, rather than sacrifice—toddlers are far more willing to help. Altruism is the most demanding sort of prosocial behavior.”

They also ran several experiments that, as it turns out, when a child sees another child suffering, they naturally want to help them- they just don’t always know how.  For example, one of their experiments involved a special blanket from home, beloved by that child- an item that they don’t allow other children to play with.  The blanket was out of reach from the adult and the adult tells the toddler she is cold, makes “brrr” sounds and shivering motions.  The toddler then, naturally, hands the blanket to the adult as means of comforting them.  BAM!  The toddler was WILLING to hand over his special blanket when he realized the adult needed it for comfort.  This basic example is something that can be built on through our own experiments and exercises at home.

So here’s the advice I got from this study- If you want your child to share, they need to WANT to share.  They need to find a reason to care about that other child’s needs.

So, Johnny’s mom… instead of saying, “Johnny, it’s Lilly’s turn now, get up and hand her the toy!”  Try saying, “Johnny, it will make Lilly really happy if you could let her play, too!  Maybe you can play together!”  Now, this might not always work, but it’s important that we as parents, realize these skills are brand new to these tiny people and respect the learning curve, as well as both child’s needs.  And also to Lilly’s mom- If your little Lilly is standing there crying because Johnny doesn’t want to give up the toy or the game yet, maybe Lilly needs to go find something else to play with instead of being taught that it’s okay to cry until someone gives her what she wants.

Here is one way I have personally started this at home-

Liam is playing with a car. Lottie comes up, tries to take the car out of Liam’s hand, Liam yells “NO!”, Lottie cries, Liam moves away from her to play undisturbed.  Now, I could say, “Hey that’s not nice, give her the car!”  But here’s what I do instead; “Liam, baby is sad because she wants to hold the car you have.  Can you find her another car to play with so she can play with you?”  His response, probably 8 out of 10 times; “Oh okay! (runs to find another car) Here you go, baby!  Let’s go!” Problem solved.  By helping him understand what the other child’s needs are, and encouraging that feeling of helping, he can see the value in not only sharing his toys because now he has a playmate, but also, he is learning to understand her feelings and that he has the power to make her happy, and that feels good.

Here is another scenario;

If Liam walks up to Lottie and she is playing with a toy he likes, he might try to take it away from her, or even ask nicely by saying, “Lottie, may I please have this toy”.  Very polite, but if she isn’t done with it, she won’t give it up. Liam has to learn that just because he asks, doesn’t mean he automatically gets what he wants.  Just like if he asked me if he can have ice cream for breakfast, EVEN IF it was very politely asked for, doesn’t mean I am under any obligation to give that to him or that he is somehow exempt from having to eat a real breakfast.  I tell him, “honey, she is happy and having fun playing with that right now, maybe you can find another toy to play with right now.”  I will usually suggest a companion item so they can play together.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but they will get it eventually and hopefully with these lessons, they will get a true understanding of what compassion REALLY looks like and build an intrinsic motivation to strive to make others happy as a result.

So what do you think?  To share or not to share?  What do you do to encourage sharing in your littles?  Do you think it’s good?  Bad?  Somewhere in between?

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