When Is Sharing Developmentally Appropriate in Toddlers?

Curious about the intricacies of toddlers and sharing, or the developmental stages when sharing becomes appropriate? Keep reading to learn how to foster the intrinsic joy in giving.

One of the topics we discuss most often in my Toddler & Me classes and my private practice is this: what’s the deal with toddlers and sharing? Should we make them share, or should we let them be?

As our little ones navigate their developmental milestones, the concept of sharing naturally takes center stage. Afterall, we were raised in a generation of, “sharing is caring.” But, there are plenty of nuances to consider when understanding toddler sharing. Let’s talk about it. We’ll pinpoint when sharing becomes developmentally appropriate, and offer actionable tips for fostering a positive sharing mindset.

Why do Toddlers Struggle to Share?

Imagine the world through a toddler's eyes – everything is new, exciting, and uniquely theirs. Toddlers, in the early stages of their journey, are still grappling with the concept of ownership. Possessiveness is a natural response as they try to make sense of a world that seems to be bursting with new things to see and touch and hold and play with.

But why can sharing be such a struggle for our little ones? Picture this: a toddler, with wide eyes filled with wonder, encounters a favorite toy. In that moment, that toy is their entire universe. The idea of parting with it is like giving up a piece of their actual heart. That's a tough one! Furthermore, toddlers are only beginning to understand the dynamics of interacting with others, and articulating their feelings is a puzzle that they will developmentally be working on for years to come.

When is Sharing Developmentally Appropriate for Toddlers?

Now, let's navigate the timeline of sharing development. It begins around the age of two when toddlers start comprehending the concept of ownership. However, full-fledged sharing, the voluntary act of parting with a cherished item, often takes a bit more time to learn. Closer to age three, the magic starts happening, and toddlers begin to experience the joy of giving, rather than the disappointment.

Don’t force your child to share, here’s why!

As tempting as it may be to encourage or even insist that a toddler shares, research advises against forcing your kid to share. Why? Because sharing coerced through external pressure lacks the intrinsic joy of giving. It may lead to resentment, increased possessiveness, and hinder the natural development of self-advocacy and positive sharing habits. We want to create moments where they want to share because they feel good about the outcomes that sharing brings – not because they’re guilted into providing those outcomes. Instead of applying pressure to share, we can focus on creating an environment where sharing occurs organically, and celebrating those moments with our kiddos to reinforce positive associations.

Developmental Stages of Sharing

Understanding the developmental stages of sharing is a bit tricker. In the initial stages, expect possessiveness and a reluctance to part with their treasures – would you want to give up your most cherished possession just because someone told you to? Probably not. Neither does your toddler.

Moving towards the age of three, however, spontaneous sharing emerges. These acts stem from a budding sense of empathy and a growing ability to understand others' feelings. Now, your kiddo wants others to also get to experience the awesomeness of the thing that they love. As parents, our role is to celebrate these moments, offering praise and positive reinforcement to nurture further growth in sharing behaviors. Saying things like, “How great does it feel to watch your friend get excited about playing with your firetruck, too?” or “that was so generous of you to share your snack so that your sister can enjoy a fruit bar with you” are a great way to encourage your toddler to share.

Understanding Different Developmental Rates

While developmental milestones provide a general guideline, it's crucial to acknowledge that every child progresses at their own pace. Recognizing and respecting these differences is fundamental in creating a supportive environment for healthy sharing habits to flourish.

For parents of children with special needs, addressing developmental delays requires a tailored approach. Collaborate with child care providers, educators, and specialists to create a customized plan that aligns with the child's unique developmental trajectory. In this process, the concept of sharing is introduced gradually, considering the child's specific emotional and cognitive needs.

The Importance of Strong Relationships in Early Childhood

Amidst the many sometimes subtle nuances in child development, the role of positive relationships in early childhood is anything but subtle. These connections significantly influence a child's social development, including their approach to sharing.

Play dates aren't just a break for parents; they're beneficial for a child's social development and building their empathy skills. These interactions provide opportunities for young children to practice social skills, including sharing, in a more relaxed and unstructured environment. When organizing play dates, ensure a diverse selection of toys and activities to encourage sharing and cooperation.

As young children form these positive peer relationships, the ripple effect on their sharing skills can become more visible. When they are feeling secure and loved within their social circle, children are more likely to extend these positive behaviors to others, making sharing a natural part of all of their social interactions.

Parallel Play and the Role of Early Childhood Educators

In the preschool years, children often engage in parallel play, where they play side by side without direct interaction. Early childhood educators play a pivotal role in guiding children through this stage, introducing the concept of sharing through parallel activities that promote cooperation without the pressure of direct interaction.

Shaping Cognitive Development Through Sharing

Sharing isn't merely a social skill; it profoundly influences a child's cognitive development. As children engage in sharing activities, they learn about concepts such as fairness, reciprocity, and the consequences of their actions.

Parents can actively incorporate cognitive development into sharing practices by introducing activities that require problem-solving, decision-making, and critical thinking. Board games, puzzles, and collaborative projects stimulate cognitive growth while reinforcing positive sharing habits.

The Role of Technology in Shaping Sharing Practices

We live in an era of continuously advancing technology, and the role of digital devices and online interactions can’t be overlooked in shaping sharing practices. Children are exposed to technology from a young age, and understanding its impact on sharing behaviors is essential for parents and educators.

Digital platforms offer new avenues for shared experiences, from collaborative gaming to online learning environments. We can’t shield our kiddos from the tech–it’s already here and it’s becoming more prevalent by the year. Instead of wholly avoiding it, parents should actively engage with their children in digital activities, emphasizing the importance of responsible sharing, online etiquette, and respecting others' digital space.

Incorporating Cultural Sensitivity in Sharing Practices

Cultural sensitivity is a crucial aspect of both learning to share and teaching children to be considerate of the diverse backgrounds and values that others bring into their social interactions. Understanding and appreciating different cultures contribute to the development of respectful and inclusive sharing habits.

Exploring Different Cultures Through Shared Activities

Parents and educators can incorporate cultural diversity into shared activities, introducing children to traditions, customs, and celebrations from various backgrounds. This fosters a sense of curiosity and appreciation for differences, promoting positive sharing behaviors that transcend cultural boundaries. Open conversations about cultural norms related to sharing can provide valuable insights for children to navigate diverse social settings. When children are encouraged to share their own cultural experiences and perspectives they, in turn, become more understanding and empathetic to those around them.

Nurturing Emotional Intelligence and Facial Expressions in Sharing

Emotional intelligence, encompassing the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions and empathize with others, is closely tied to positive sharing practices. Facial expressions play a significant role in conveying emotions, and nurturing children's emotional intelligence contributes to overall healthier sharing habits.

Connecting Emotional Intelligence to Sharing Experiences

Parents can actively engage with children in discussions about emotions, helping them identify and label different feelings. Connecting emotions to specific sharing experiences reinforces the link between emotional awareness and positive sharing behaviors.

Facial expressions are powerful communicators of emotions. Encouraging children to observe and interpret facial expressions during social interactions enhances their ability to understand others' feelings. You can support them by asking them questions in these moments:  

“Look at your friend’s face….Yes, they are crying, what do you think that means? Hmmm, I bet you’re right. They’re probably sad because they didn't get a turn to play with the racecar yet…how can we help?...Yes, I think that letting them have a turn with the racecar is a great idea!”  If your child has a chance to problem-solve on their own, they’re more likely to be aware of the emotional connections associated with sharing and, in turn, be more likely to nurture generosity on their own.

Role-playing activities that involve mimicking facial expressions are also a great way to develop empathy and reinforce the importance of considering others' emotions in shared contexts.

The Role of Everyday Life in Shaping Positive Sharing Habits

Everyday life provides a multitude of opportunities to reinforce positive sharing habits. From sharing meals and household chores to collaborative decision-making, integrating sharing into the fabric of daily activities contributes to a child's holistic understanding of sharing as a fundamental aspect of life.

Sharing in Everyday Activities

Sharing meals as a family gives a sense of community and reinforces the importance of sharing resources. Parents can involve children in meal planning, preparation, and serving, creating a shared experience that goes beyond the act of simply sharing food.

Household chores offer valuable lessons in shared responsibility which is just as important as shared toys, etc. Allocating tasks, working together as a family, and celebrating collective achievements instill a sense of cooperation and shared effort. Children learn that sharing goes beyond items and resources and extends to contributing to the well-being of the family unit.

The Role of Family Structure and Gender Identity in Sharing Practices

In families with multiple children, the family structure significantly impacts sharing dynamics. Parents should be mindful of fostering an environment where each child's individual needs and perspectives are considered. Open communication and setting clear expectations contribute to a harmonious sharing environment among siblings.

Tips to Teach Skills for Sharing Among Siblings

For those navigating the sometimes windy road of sibling dynamics, fostering positive sharing habits becomes paramount. Sibling relationships, often composed of equal parts love and rivalry, offer unique opportunities for shared experiences. Here are a few actionable tips to support sibling relationships:

  • Encourage Turn-Taking: Structure activities that involve taking turns, instilling the idea that everyone gets a chance to enjoy something.
  • Use Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledge and praise voluntary sharing instances. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in cultivating desirable behaviors.
  • Model Good Sharing Behavior: Older siblings are influential role models. By showcasing an older sibling’s positive sharing habits, parents set a compelling example for younger siblings to emulate.
  • Introduce Shared Play: Engage siblings in collaborative activities like board games and art projects. These not only promote sharing, but also collaboration.
  • Foster Communication: Encourage siblings to express their feelings and negotiate during conflict. You can call this “let’s share our feelings,” and allow each sibling to essentially “get a turn” to speak.  Effective communication is a vital skill in resolving sharing-related disputes.

The Impact of Positive Role Models on Sharing Practices

Parents, caregivers, and educators serve as primary role models for children, significantly influencing their attitudes and behaviors, including sharing practices. Modeling positive sharing behaviors is a powerful way to instill the values of generosity, empathy, and cooperation.

Parents can explicitly demonstrate sharing in everyday situations, whether it's offering a snack, helping with a task, or collaborating on a project. Narrating these actions and explaining the thought process behind sharing provides children with valuable insights into the positive impact of sharing on relationships and overall well-being.

Gender identity also plays a role in shaping sharing behaviors. Societal norms and expectations related to gender can influence how children perceive sharing. Parents should be conscious of avoiding gender-specific stereotypes and promoting equal and inclusive opportunities for all children to engage in positive sharing practices.

Parents, Remember This!

As we guide our little ones through the labyrinth of toddlerhood, let's keep a few key points close to heart:

  • Patience is Key: Developmental milestones unfold at unique paces. Be patient, allowing toddlers the time needed to grasp the concept of sharing.
  • Celebrate Small Wins: Acknowledge and celebrate even the tiniest instances of voluntary sharing. Positive reinforcement strengthens the link between sharing and positive feelings.
  • Create a Sharing-Friendly Environment: Foster an atmosphere where sharing is encouraged without coercion. Provide opportunities for shared activities and playdates, allowing natural sharing interactions to unfold.
  • Be a Supportive Guide: Guide toddlers through the learning process with gentle explanations about the joy that comes from sharing. Avoid shaming or pressuring, allowing positive sharing habits to evolve organically.

Try to take a moment to celebrate the sharing milestones, both big and small. Nurturing a child's understanding of sharing is an opportunity to create connection. The Conscious Mommy Community is here to help create more connection, share our extensive resources and offer the support of conscious parents just like you. You’ll find valuable workshops, courses, a growing digital library, stories and a community of fellow parents and caregivers who want to share their journey with you! Learn more today, we’ll see you inside!