How often do your children whine when someone plays with their toys at school or at home? Irrespective of whether it is a school mate or a sibling/relative, children, especially the younger ones, find it difficult to share.
Sharing is a quite complex act and requires a certain level of cognitive and emotional development. It involves holding multiple thoughts in mind, such as “that teddy bear is mine but my sister currently has it”. It also involves an understanding of time: “you will get the teddy bear back after five minutes”.
Sharing is not something which generally comes naturally, especially for children, and one must appreciate their current developmental level. One must also consider a child’s temperament because every child is unique. Some children are calmer and more collaborative by nature while others require more nurturing to develop certain skills.
Toddlers tend to be egocentric and they would have just started to gradually see themselves more as individuals rather than extensions of their parents. At this age they would also have started to recognise that they possess things. In fact, a common word used at two or three years is: “mine!”
At such a young age, children still put their needs first and may feel upset when not immediately gratified. Hence, it is pivotal to emphasise that it is normal for pre-schoolers to have difficulty with sharing.
True sharing also involves empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. And true empathy tends to develop after five years of age. As children have more opportunities to play with peers, sometimes also through coaching and guidance, they then begin to appreciate the value of sharing.
Children aged four to five may start to engage in selective sharing. It is important that children are given the space to see what toys or objects they are willing to share and those which they are not willing to share. For example, a child may find it easier to share a ball rather than his special tattered blanket. Therefore, as parents or main caregivers, it is crucial to respect the children’s attachment to their chosen special toys.
The underlying and immense importance of forming a secure parent-child attachment remains at the fulcrum of everything. Children who feel loved and who have good self-worth are more likely to be generous and to form better relationships with peers.
While sharing can be defined as giving a ‘part’ of something to another person, giving involves transferring the ‘complete’ possession of something to someone else. Giving involves remaining with ‘nothing’ but, really and truly, earning a greater sense of satisfaction back.
Both giving and sharing are meaningful and may be more likely to take place when people come from a more, safe, stable and secure life position. When people feel that their basic physiological and emotional needs are satisfied, they may be in a greater position to give back to others.
Giving and well-being go hand in hand. Various studies suggest that when people give their time, objects or financial support to others among other things, they are more likely to feel happier, satisfied, worthy and less stressed. Being generous and giving gifts in an appropriate manner is also linked with showing love and appreciation towards the other person. In turn, this is likely to positively influence the bond between persons.
“Children who feel loved and who have good self-worth are more likely to be generous and to form better relationships with peers”
The act of giving is also related with altruism and compassion. Giving gifts to others without expecting anything in return gives the gift-giver intrinsic satisfaction in seeing the gift-receiver’s positive reaction.
Volunteering is an excellent form of giving in today’s modern world. There are so many people who would benefit from more support that the gift of time and presence remains a priority. Research on volunteering and well-being also suggests that people who volunteer are likely to live happier and longer lives.
Children can be coached by their parents to choose a new toy to buy to other children who are currently experiencing more hardships. Other opportunities may include visiting a children’s hospital and giving gifts to children there, or sponsoring a meal for a family who is living in poverty. Through such opportunities, children may begin to form an understanding of what other children/people may be feeling.
It is essential that parents teach their children to value both giving and receiving presents. Parents may also help their children to show appreciation in various ways, including hugging and praising, and not only through presents.
Through the expression of secure love and attention, be it through gifts and through other means, children are more likely to feel worthy of being loved and happier. Thus, it is more beneficial to focus on emotional gifts and time, and to make these gifts a daily commitment to our families.
How can parents encourage children to share?
Encouraging and helping children learn how to share requires a lot of time and patience as well as gentle coaching. It is much more useful if a child is not forced to share. Instead, an environment which promotes collaboration and a modelling of sharing is encouraged.
Parents can comment and ask questions related to sharing. For example: “Would you like some of my crisps?”.
Sharing the attachment figure may also prove to be difficult for children. Parents can model sharing by dedicating equal playing time to their children (as much as possible).
Before a play date, the parents can sit with their children and talk about which toys they would like to share and which they want to guard as their own. Through this, the child’s interests would be protected yet the child would be learning to share as well.
Also, in a party, children can be asked to go round the room and offer items (like flowers, food, toys) to the other guests in a way that promotes generosity. Through this, the message that sharing is the norm is conveyed and children start to experience the positive feelings associated with it.
A timer can also be used to help children share their toys and time appropriately. Offering choices is also empowering for the child, “Would you like to share your blue truck or your white truck?”.
Parents are also encouraged to label their children’s feelings. Children’s behaviour is a means of communication. If children do not have the emotional language to express themselves they may engage in various forms of behaviour, including temper tantrums, to make their voice heard. Hence, it is helpful if parents reflect back their child’s emotion; for instance, “Jack, are you feeling afraid you will not get your soft toy back?”.In this way, children will start to recognise their own feelings and with time they may increase their verbal emotional language.
Parents may also feel the urge to step in when children are having trouble with sharing. It is helpful to allow the children to solve problems but sometimes they may require some guidance.
Parents may say: “It seems that both of you want to play with the giraffe. How are you going to solve this?”. They need to give children the space to learn to resolve small feuds by themselves and praise their positive behaviours in the process.
Charlene Aquilina is a clinical psychologist and family therapist.