Learning to share can feel hard, especially for young children. It’s normal for children to feel frustrated or angry when asked to share. At the same time, sharing can be necessary or even encouraged in some life situations, from sharing a pencil in class to sharing credit with your colleagues in the workplace.
Still, there may be times when you want to teach your child that it’s okay not to share. After all, we all have instances in our adult lives where sharing doesn’t always make sense—and teaching this social skill to your child could help them learn how to speak up for their needs.
So, is sharing toys an important skill for your child? The answer isn’t always yes or no. But knowing how to teach kids to share—and when it’s okay for them to not share—can help you support your child as they grow those important sharing and self-advocacy skills.
How Learning to Share Can Affect Child Development
So, why is sharing important for a child? Whether sharing makes sense may depend on the situation. But learning and talking about sharing can help with a number of skills, including:
- Playing socially – Research suggests that play can help children build social skills and problem-solving skills.
- Creative problem solving – Finding a way to play fairly when both children want the same toy can provide children an opportunity to practice solving a problem together using their creativity.
- Managing their emotions – Waiting for your turn can feel frustrating. Helping your child learn how to feel difficult feelings and then find solutions for those feelings—like playing with another toy in the meantime—can help them practice how to manage difficult emotions.
While learning to share can form a crucial building block for your child, it’s important to know when your child is ready to learn sharing skills—and when it might make more sense to wait.
What Age Can a Child Learn to Share?
Knowing when it’s the right time for your young child to begin learning toy-sharing skills can help you understand when and how to guide your child through these situations.
Typically, children begin to develop sharing skills between ages 3.5 to 4. That’s because, before that point, children haven’t developed the emotional tools to think about how someone else might feel—which means it’s harder for them to want to share.
You can begin helping your child learn about sharing when they’re younger, but your child might require more guidance and support from you, and might not truly hold onto those sharing lessons until they’re older and have grown to understand other people’s feelings.
That said, there are situations where, at any age, teaching your child to share may not be the best way to help them grow.
When It’s Okay Not to Share
While it can help children’s development in some ways when parents encourage them to share, some experts argue that forcing your child to share can actually backfire. If you tell your child they have to share, even when they don’t want to, they may begin to associate sharing with feelings of anger and frustration. And that can make them less likely to choose to share on their own in the future.
In addition, telling children they have to share with others, even when they don’t want to, can send a message that others’ feelings are more important than their own. Being forced to share could also make it difficult for children to understand that they’re allowed to create their own boundaries and make space for their feelings.
Instead, focus on encouraging your child to share, but ultimately leave it up to them. We outlined a few tips for how to encourage your child to safely share below.
It’s also okay not to share when they’re too young to learn about sharing. If your young toddler likes to take things from you while playing, don’t worry—there’s plenty of time for them to learn how to share when they’re a bit older. For now, enjoy playing with your child, whatever form that play takes.
Tips to Help Your Child Learn About Sharing
Like any other skill, it takes time to learn toy sharing. In that same vein, sharing may look different from child to child. For example, some children may need encouragement regarding setting their own boundaries and knowing it’s okay to have their own turn with toys or books. On the other hand, some children may need guidance on how to respect and empathize with other kids’ boundaries and perspectives on sharing.
Regardless of the scenario, having a wide range of techniques in your healthy parenting toolbox can help you find a way for you and your child to communicate about sharing at any given moment.
Here are some tips and tactics you can try to help your kid learn to share with others:
#1 Model Sharing Behavior
Children can learn many concepts by copying the behavior of the adults in their lives. When you share something, point it out to your child—for example, by saying, “Here, I’ll share this with you!” when offering to share something. You can talk about why you decided to share and how it makes both you and the person you’re sharing with feel good.
Alternately, if there are times when you don’t want to share with someone else, or when sharing may not make sense, you can connect with your child about these situations, too. Knowing how to communicate with children about your own emotions around sharing can help light the way for them.
#2 Acknowledge Your Child’s Choice to Share
When your child chooses to share on their own, acknowledge their behavior by saying something like, “I saw you shared your toys at the playdate, that was kind of you to do.” After recognizing this behavior, ask them how it made them feel. Giving your child the opportunity to reflect on their choice to share can help them navigate these types of decisions in other situations. Additionally, it allows them to reflect on why they chose to share and their feelings about sharing.
#3 Validate Other Children’s Right to Not Share
When it comes to sharing, it’s important for your child to understand and respect that other kids may not want to share their belongings. If your child forcefully takes their friend’s toy away, help your child learn boundaries. For example, you can say something along the lines of:
- “I can see by your friend's face that they weren't done playing with their toy. I'm going to help you return it. We can play when they are done."
Once you’ve established a boundary, be sure to empathize with your child while teaching them how to understand and respect their friend’s choice for not sharing. You can do this by talking about how their friend might feel to have their toy taken away. You can also help them recognize their friends’ feelings. For example, you may say something like:
- "I understand that you really want to play with that toy, but I noticed you took it from your friend without asking first. They look really sad about that. Let's try again and ask first this time."
Similarly, if your child asks to share another’s toy but the other child says “no,” help your child learn to respect that boundary. Instead of pressuring the other child to share, help your child find a different game or toy to play with. You never know—when your child’s friend sees how much fun the new game is, they may join in too.
#4 Talk About Feelings Surrounding Sharing
Whether your child doesn’t want to share or feels frustrated that another child won’t, it’s important to recognize their feelings and show them that feeling this way is okay. Try understanding what happened and why each child feels the way they do. Encourage your child to think about their own feelings, but also the feelings of the other children in the situation.
Once you’ve validated both children’s emotions, you can explain that the kid who had the toy first gets to play with that toy if they don’t want to share. The child who has to wait for their turn might have some big emotions about this—it’s hard to wait for what you want when someone else gets to have it now.
Letting the waiting child know it’s okay to feel their feelings and that you understand why they’re upset can help them feel heard. Once they’ve calmed down, you can help them find a solution, like playing with another toy. For more strategies on how to calm your child down in stressful situations, make sure to read up on safe calming strategies for kids to help them navigate their emotions at a young age.
#5 Use Long or Timed Turns
Taking turns, especially during turn taking games, can feel frustrating for your child if someone else wants to take a turn with the toy they just picked up. Instead of encouraging your child to share immediately, try telling them they can take a long turn and share the toy when they’ve finished playing with it. (In the meantime, you can help your child’s playmate find a different toy to play with).
If that’s not a realistic solution for your child and their playgroup, you can also try using timed turns. Set a timer for a few minutes and let your child play with the popular toy until the timer runs out. Then let your child’s playmate have the toy for the same timed amount of time, rotating back and forth until every child has had a turn or they’ve lost interest.
#6 Help Your Child Brainstorm Creative Solutions
When it comes to practicing problem solving activities for kids, sometimes you can use a lack of specific toys as an opportunity to encourage creative play. For example, if two children want to play with the same dress-up hat, try asking, “What else could we use for a hat?” Or, if both children want to play with a doll, try asking, “What other toy could be friends with this doll?”
Try using questions to guide them toward a solution while still leaving room for them to come up with their own ideas.
#7 Support Sharing Lessons with Books and Storytelling
Sometimes it’s hard to absorb lessons in the heat of the moment. Reading books about characters who learn how to share their feelings and their toys can help give your child a way to understand the important sharing lessons you’ve been teaching them. It can also provide an opportunity for them to ask questions and talk about how sharing makes them feel.
Luckily, there are plenty of books out there for you and your child to discover. We recommend Lynx Sets Boundaries Board Book, which helps children learn how to share their feelings and set healthy boundaries, and Hammerhead, Mad’s Not Bad Board Book, which helps children learn it’s okay to get mad and make mistakes.
Teach Your Child About Sharing With Slumberkins
Learning about sharing can be a wonderful way for your child to build healthy boundaries and understand the feelings of others. Most importantly, let your child know they can talk to you and ask for their help when sharing feels difficult. You can help to validate their feelings and support them in those moments.
At Slumberkins, we want to help you raise caring, confident, and resilient children. We design toys, books, and educational support tools to help you teach your children important lessons about listening to and managing their emotions. Whether you’re looking for books about connection or social emotional learning toys, we’re here for you.
- MacLaughlin, Sarah. "Helping Young Children With Sharing." Zero to Three. 11 August, 2017. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/helping-young-children-with-sharing/
- Yogman, Michael et al. “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” Pediatrics vol. 142,3 (2018): e20182058. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2058
- "It’s Ok Not to Share." Heather Shumaker. https://heathershumaker.com/book/its-ok-not-to-share/
- Schmitt, Barton. "When Your Toddler Doesn’t Share Toys." The National Parenting Center. https://nationalparentingcenter.com/when-your-toddler-doesnt-share-toys-2/