Laying the GroundworkEven babies have an inkling of what sharing is about, say experts. Something as simple as talking to your infant when she coos at you or playing patty-cake teaches her the fundamentals of taking turns of giving and receiving.
Around 2 years of age, toddlers make a cognitive breakthrough: They start to understand the concept of possession. Judy Lee, of Weston, Connecticut, noticed that her 3-year-old twin boys find ways to identify their belongings, down to the tiniest detail, even when she can't tell the difference. "They have identical jungle-print cushions. One day, one of the boys was crying because he couldn't find his cushion, which had a center tack covered with a red hippo."
Once your child reaches this milestone, you can begin to say such things as, "Oh, this is Betsy's doll. We'll ask her if she'll share it with you." That way, she can begin to comprehend the language associated with playing together and taking turns.
Although it can take years to master the fine points, here's one of the best ways to teach sharing: Be a role model. Edward Christophersen would often purchase a container of French fries to share with his then toddler son, Hunter. "One day, I bought them with the understanding that he'd share them with me. Hunter made the first feeble attempts by giving me a few crunchy brown ones. But gradually he became more generous, and pretty soon he was actually giving me fries with some potato in them," says Christophersen, author of Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts a Lifetime.
Besides being a good role model, try to reinforce the lesson at every opportunity. "Many parents will buy a cookie for each child. Actually, you're better off if you get just one so your kids can learn to share," Christophersen says.
Kathy Fitzgerald, of East Greenbush, New York, took that approach when her children were 2, 4, and 5. If there was only one more cookie left in the pack, Fitzgerald would let one child divide it, while another got first choice on which piece to eat. "My kids quickly realized that this method was in everyone's best interest," she says, adding that it also worked when they had friends over. And there was an extra benefit: Her children learned to solve dilemmas without their mother's intervention.
It also helps to remember to praise even the smallest effort. A hug, a smile, or a compliment can motivate even the most recalcitrant toy sharer. Whenever Julie Killian, of Fulton, Missouri, sees her 3 1/2-year-old son building Lego towers for his 1-year-old sister to knock over, she makes it a point to go over and tell them how nice it is to see them playing together.