Annie Keeling: To share or not to share |

Annie Keeling: To share or not to share

It’s healthy for the child to attach first to the parent or caregiver in the first year of life and then to things in the second year. At first, children don’t want to share their parents, and then they don’t want to share their toys. It’s a necessary step toward feeling safe and secure.
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“When should I teach my child to share?”

The mother asking me this question looks with frustration at her 2-year-old daughter who has just stolen the only ball in the playroom from a little boy. He has fallen to his knees and is crying hysterically.

This mother is worried what the other parents will think of her reaction. She also worries about her own young children learning to share. With the holidays approaching, she is stressed over the ritual gift-opening on Christmas day.



I feel for this mother who is responding to cultural expectations of sharing. Parents often encourage children to share even when the child is too young to act on this concept. I explain to this mother that learning about attachments is an important part of a young child’s development.

It’s healthy for the child to attach first to the parent or caregiver in the first year of life and then to things in the second year. At first, children don’t want to share their parents, and then they don’t want to share their toys. It’s a necessary step toward feeling safe and secure.

When toddlers grab an object and say “Mine!” they are growing into an important stage. It’s not helpful to tell the child, “That’s not yours,” or “Actually that’s your brother’s toy” since this is a development phase they need to experience.

Children closely observe the adults around them. They see how adults are giving and caring of others. They also see that there are things the adults would rather not share. “Nice BMW. Can I have it for a while?” an acquaintance asks. We would most likely say no.

Identifying ownership isn’t a sign of selfishness — it’s a sign of knowledge. “It demonstrates a desire to understand the world,” says Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of Child Development at Syracuse University. (



Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. True sharing – not the kind imposed upon children by adults – involves empathy. Parents are often shocked when I explain that children usually aren’t capable of true empathy until around the age of 6.

Building our children’s empathy is the first step to teaching skills of sharing. A few examples:

• Model empathy by expressing that you understand your child’s upset emotions. “I see that really made you mad.”

• Help children recognize non-verbal social cues that indicate someone else is hurt or upset – body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

• Use a story from your past to convey how you did or didn’t use empathy in a situation.

• Play a people watching game. Sit outside where people walk by and guess their mood from what you observe.


Teaching a Child to Share

Children under two are into parallel play – playing alongside others but not with them. As described, they care about their things and not how another feels.  Given guidance and generosity, the seemingly selfish two year old can become a generous three or four year old. As children begin to play with each other and cooperate in their play, they begin to see the value of sharing.

There are many ways we can increase our child’s ability to share and reduce conflicts around the ownership and use of a child’s important items.

Share with You. One of the first places to teach sharing is with you. This will minimize frustration and tantrums that might be present with peers. Ask to play with one of your child’s favorite toys and let her know she can ask for it back.

Remove Special Toys. Let your child put away new or special toys before a friend comes over. This won’t avoid all toy conflict, but it can help a child know that there is a way to keep her favorite toys safe. If the child is going through a phase where every toy is special and any sharing creates an issue, then it’s helpful to meet at a neutral location like the park.

Go to the Playground. A great place to observe and practice taking turns is at the playground.  The equipment is there for everyone, and only one person can go down the slide at a time, especially with social distancing. There are many opportunities to see other children waiting their turn. This lessens the home-turf advantage of, “This is mine,” when playing at one child’s house.

Special Shelf. Many siblings clash because one took something from the other child. Have a special space like a shelf or a cabinet where each child’s most important possessions are not touchable by others. Since an item’s specialness may change daily, develop a system where certain toys can be changed out into shared space and others can be “special” for a short time.

Keep the Toy. This idea comes from a policy at some local preschools. If a child is playing with a toy, he gets to keep it as long as he wants. This provides a feeling of relief and security to that child and also allows for deeper creative play with the toy or object. While this may be upsetting to another child who wants that toy, a caregiver can help them to wait, express their emotions, or find something else to play with. The child who does not have the toy has an opportunity to sit with uncomfortable feelings, then learn how to deal with those feelings and move on. Learning to share is an important skill when children are ready, yet Keep the Toy helps meet them where they are at developmentally.

Pulling Cards. When there is more than one child, whether it’s a sibling or play date friends, make an index card for each child with their name on it. Then when a situation presents itself for one child to play with a toy first, put the cards behind your back and pick one. The cards decide!

Model Generosity. With your child’s keen observations, they will see when you share with others, how you react to requests from friends to borrow something, or how you aid those who are less fortunate. Look for opportunities where you can involve your child in giving to others. The holidays are a perfect time. Check out Connecting Points local Volunteer Hub for more ideas.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. The next Nurturing Parenting Virtual Seminar will start in January.

WHAT: Nurturing Parenting 8-week Virtual Seminar, for parents of children ages 2-12

WHEN: Jan. 12 – March 9, 2021, Tuesday Zoom calls, 7 to 8:15 p.m. Weekly video presentation, worksheets, and family practice

COST: Free of charge to Nevada County residents

MORE INFO: Contact 530-268-5086 or


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