Your toddler is doing so many new things! She’s toddling — terrific! She’s feeding herself with a spoon — wonderful! She’s asking for things with her words…and then adamantly refusing to let go of them when your best friend’s toddler wants a turn — less amazing.
“No, no — share,” you say in your most reasonable voice. The blood-curdling shriek you get in response blows the plastic lids off both toddlers’ sippy cups.
You’ve been loving; you’ve modeled kindness during her short time on the planet thus far. Where did you go wrong?
The answer is: you didn’t. Until you asked your toddler to share, that is. Believe it or not, if you want your toddler to become a child — and then an adult — who is sharing and generous, DON’T ASK YOUR TODDLER TO SHARE.
Toddler development experts cite several reasons to hold off on this expectation. And they all stem from the first and most important reason: It’s pointless! Sure, they’re walking (sort of) and talking (sort of), but that just makes it easy for us all to be fooled into thinking they’re farther along in their understanding of their world and themselves in it than they actually are.
As far back as 1946, in his famous Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock told parents, “There is no point in trying to teach a two-year-old to share…. A child first has to understand that something belongs to him.”
Even today, it can be difficult advice to take. We don’t want our toddlers to look selfish, and we don’t want to feel bad about how they might reflect on our family or our parenting skills. But it’s a human developmental fact that, as professor of pediatrics Dr. Steven Shelov wrote in his groundbreaking work The Complete and Authoritative Guide. Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth To Age Five, “[s]haring is a meaningless word to a child this age.”
- Toddlers are still just beginning to build a sense of self as differentiated from others. “Egocentric” is often used to describe young children – and it’s not an insult, it’s just brain-developmental reality. Their brains are not yet developed enough for them to envision others’ wishes, and they are not yet socially developed enough to honor others’ needs and wants. They are beginning to sense boundaries, beginning to establish a sense of their own identity — but for now, everything around them feels like a part of themselves, so giving away of any of it feels like a loss of self. “I have, therefore I am,” is one of their chief operating principles as they try to sort out the concept of selfhood. In keeping with this…
- Toddlers start to grasp the concept of ownership before they’ve fully grasped the concept of “otherhood.” And so, as authors Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel explain in What To Expect: The Second Year, our little ones haven’t yet quite figured out that ownership applies to anyone but themselves. They therefore guard possessions with their lives — no matter who the things actually belong to!
- Toddlers have so little control over their lives and hold on with dear life to whatever control they can exert. This includes holding on with dear life to whatever they can possess.
- In addition, toddlers don’t have a sense of time! Giving up what they have “for a few minutes” so someone else can have “a turn,” or because, “your turn will be next,” requires a sense of time. Taking turns, sharing, lending, borrowing — none of it makes sense to toddlers, because they equate it with giving things up for good.
- And, finally, as we know you well know, toddlers lack impulse control! If they want something, they are not yet developmentally equipped to think about the reasons why not to grab it, and if they have something, they don’t understand why they shouldn’t do whatever it takes to hang onto it.
But, but, but.. you ask. Why can’t I encourage my toddler to share, anyway? What harm could it do? Why not introduce the concept, get a head start?
- Because it backfires!
Soon, your toddler will have the mental and social wherewithal to take other’s feelings and desires into account and will have enough sense of self to let others use what still feels like “mine.” In fact, by around age three, children become more interested in playing with, not just alongside, their peers, and in making friends (“Let’s go play with my toys!”).
Until that glorious day, insisting that toddlers share is the same for them as insisting they do anything else they aren’t developmentally ready for: it’s confusing, frustrating, even shaming.
Yes, it’s true, babies and young toddlers will often hand over a toy, or offer to feed you their food. Since the gesture is coming from the toddler, you can certainly go ahead and affirm, “Thank you for sharing!” And then…when they snatch it right back… you can validate, “Oh you want it back.” They are putting a toe in the water, not yet fully ready to discard their water wings and dive into genuine and full-fledged sharing…
But were we to go so far as to tell, ask, suggest that these same delightfully faux-generous toddlers share before they’re developmentally ready, for the five above reasons — while we simultaneously attempt to deprive them of what they are desperately and vociferously holding onto — is it any wonder they might resist repeating the experience?! In fact, toddler development expert Dr. Tovah Klein explains in How Toddlers Thrive that there’s evidence to suggest that insisting on sharing too soon will result in your child remaining selfish until a far older age.
So, no matter how sweetly you suggest it, in telling your child to share, or even to take turns, while taking something away or letting another child take it away, you are sending the message that your toddler doesn’t deserve not only the object in question but the very “self-ness” that object (and the next, and the next…!) is helping the toddler develop at the moment.
So…is there anything we can do to promote the development of generosity in our toddlers?
Yes! We simply need to SHOW rather than tell. We can show our toddlers what it’s like to share happily. Generosity comes from within — we have it in us and can show our toddlers how it looks and feels. Then they will have an ongoing model of how to do it as they continue to master the concepts about the world that need to be in place first. And they’ll get to “generous” faster if we let them keep that blue shovel or plush toy or entire box of Duplo blocks…just for now.
About the Authors
Carol Zeavin holds master’s degrees in education and special education from Bank Street College and worked with infants and toddlers for nearly a decade as head teacher at Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center and Barnard’s Toddler Development Center. Rhona Silverbush studied psychology and theater at Brandeis University and law at Boston College Law School. She currently coaches actors, writes, tutors, and consults for families of children and teens with learning differences and special needs. They are the authors of a new children’s book series, TERRIFIC TODDLERS (Magination Press, children’s book division of American Psychological Association)