When it comes to toddlers, ‘sharing is caring’ may not be the best motto. To foster true prosocial behavior, it can be best to hold off on asking our toddlers to share, and to wait until they are cognitively and emotionally ready to view sharing as a caring gesture.
Toddlers cannot be expected to share if they do not yet conceptually understand what sharing means. Although they may appear to comprehend a lot about their world, they do not yet understand themselves as separate from others. At this age, the focus is on building a sense of self, largely through a sense of ownership. When toddlers grab and hoard objects, they are not being selfish, but testing the theory that they are individuals.
Forcing a toddler to share during this intense pursuit of selfhood can actually backfire, as it sends conflicting messages about their right to control their personal belongings. Encouraging toddlers to have a sense of ownership over their possessions is important for the development of self-esteem and independence.
Instead of forcing our toddlers to share, we can:
Teach functional communication: If a child’s toy was taken away, teach them to assert themselves by saying, ‘no, that’s mine!’ Alternatively, teach the child grabbing a toy to say, ‘Can I play?’
Label and validate emotions: Help your toddler build an emotional vocabulary for expressing their feelings. When we validate their emotional experience, we let them know they are seen and understood, helping them self-regulate.
Model sharing and generosity: Toddlers learn by observing the behavior of others. By allowing them to witness sharing and cooperation among adults, they can internalize these values more naturally over time.
With time and patience, our toddlers will develop a strong sense of self and around the age of three, be ready and willing to genuinely share with others.
Laura Greene, LMSW is a psychotherapist and applied behavior analyst who provides psychotherapy, parenting support, school advocacy, and behavioral interventions in Pleasantville and virtually in New York State. She specializes behavioral issues, parenting, school issues, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the challenges of early childhood. Learn more about the ABA support she offers at highpointaba.net.
Reach out to Laura at www.pleasantvilletherapy.com