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The Art of Sharing

We've all been there: You're sitting on the edge of the sandbox watching your 2-year-old play with another toddler. Everything's peaceful until the other child takes her shovel and demands a turn. While you're urging your daughter to share, she's equally adamant about keeping the shovel to herself; before you know it, the sandbox play has erupted into a tearful tug-of-war. What's a parent to do?

For most kids, sharing doesn't come easily — it's much more natural for them to cling to a shovel than it is to give it up with a smile. But since sharing is integral to living with others, experts advise that parents introduce the concept early and consistently reinforce it.

Kathryn E. Livingston, a mother of three, is coauthor of Parenting Partners.

Laying the Groundwork

Even 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.

Playing With Pals

As every parent knows, the biggest challenge comes when you invite another child to your house to play. The guest is thrilled to have a roomful of unfamiliar toys to explore, while the host is wary of having his things touched. To keep tantrums to a minimum:

Have a plan. Before you invite someone to come over, take your child's temperament into account, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, in Washington, DC, and mom to Sam, 9, and Jessica, 7. "Some kids are more flexible than others and more easygoing. Especially when they're younger, less outgoing children see sharing as an invasion of their space," explains Lerner, adding that her son often felt this way when he was a preschooler.

If your little one is slow to warm up to any type of change, talking about the visit an hour or two before can help. You can discuss how he'll handle his frustration when his friend plays with his things, and together you can brainstorm; this strategy usually worked for Lerner's son. "For preschoolers, the more they think of the ideas, the easier time they'll have," says Lerner.

Offer choices. Let your child decide which toys he's willing to let others play with, says Renee Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica. Then let him store the rest of them away.

Marci Goldberg, of Woodland Hills, California, went one step further when her son Logan, now 4, first started having playdates. "I'd tell him several times, 'You know, your friend is going to be playing with those toys you left out.'" But often Logan himself would get out the special toys he'd put away. "Since he had the choice, he was able to make that gesture," says Goldberg.

If your toddler's under 2, you'll probably have to be the one to shelve his bedtime snuggle object or anything else he values highly.

Sometimes kids are afraid their toys will be thrown or broken. So establish the rules soon after his playmates arrive: Tell all the kids that the toys must be handled nicely and if they're not, you'll take them away.

Practice taking turns. Around 3, a child can truly understand that when he shares an object, he can expect that it will be returned. Until he does, having him take turns whenever he plays with pals is a good way to help him learn this. Goldberg kept the turn-taking to a minute each. "That way, it was easier for Logan to make the connection that letting someone play with his things didn't mean they were gone forever," she says.

Another tactic — Cohen calls it "mutual sharing" — is to invite the visitor to bring along some toys of his own; your child may be more willing to hand over a beloved object if his playmate has something to offer in return.

Go outside. There's always the possibility that your child won't be willing to part with any toy. If that's the case, go out to the backyard and have the kids toss a ball around or chase each other. Or involve them together in an activity indoors — whether it's rolling out Play-Doh or playing house — that's less likely to cause conflict between them.

Take a break if there's a breakdown. Of course, you can prepare your child in every way, start the visit off with a group activity, and still witness a meltdown. "I remember getting indignant with Sam and trying to force him to share," says Lerner. But eventually she learned that the best way to handle his outbursts was by doing something less stressful. "Sometimes I'd ask each child to pick out a book for me to read aloud," she says. Other times, she found that fixing a snack together worked.

After his friend has gone home, you can talk about what happened and ask your child how he'd have felt if his pal had had the tantrum. You can also role-play before the kids meet again. You pretend to be the playmate and tell your child, "I'm going to play with this truck now." Then the two of you can explore his responses. That way, you'll both be more prepared when the next playdate rolls around.

Acknowledge his feelings. Learning to take turns and to give up their toys are difficult concepts for young kids to grasp; if your child doesn't like to do either one, try to let him know that you're aware of how difficult it is for him, says Lerner.

And if he's just become a big brother, adapt your strategies. When a playmate comes over, go to a park or put some paints out, and by all means let your child know how much you appreciate his willingness to share everything right now.


to ShareThe bottom line, say experts, is that kids won't start sharing unless they feel a need to do so. In other words, your preschooler may not want to have anyone else play with her beloved cash register, but when her pal refuses to let her have a turn riding his trike, she'll quickly appreciate the virtues of parting temporarily with her toys. (To reinforce the lesson, you could point out later how bad she felt when she wasn't allowed a turn.) But once a child starts, it's a skill she'll have for life: My boys actually pool their prized Pokémon cards now that they've figured out their collection is much more valuable when consolidated. Like my sons, most kids eventually learn that the personal and social payoffs are much more rewarding than the lonely advantage of keeping everything all for themselves.