0 - 18 months, 18 - 36 months, Communication, Cooperative Play, Sense of Belonging, Understanding the World

The trouble with sharing and what to do instead

Brittany Hallett 13 July 2022

Sharing is a phrase we hear everywhere, yet, it's widely misused. We can all agree that conflict over toys and resources is one of the most common challenges we face as educators caring for small children. We’ve seen it countless times. One child takes a toy from another, the tug of war, the insistent “mine!” and tears that sometimes follow.

With all good intentions, we often feel the need to jump headfirst into this situation, insisting that the children must share and refrain from taking things off each other. While this may seem the right thing to do from an adult’s perspective, this isn’t a particularly constructive approach.

The basis of the RIE philosophy is respect. In this instance, respecting children means supporting them in doing what we know they are capable of, and sharing is not one of these things. At least not yet.

Now don’t get me wrong. Toddlers are amazing! They learn and develop incredibly fast, dazzling us daily with new knowledge and skills. Their brains work hard to make sense of the world, producing over a million neural connections every second! It’s easy to let our expectations run away from us and forget that there are things they haven’t quite grasped yet.

So, before we talk about why forced sharing or turn-taking is unhelpful for children, I’d first like us to think about why toddlers squabble over resources in the first place. It’s not for the reason that many of us may believe. As educators, we often assume that children take toys off one another simply because they want the toy for themselves. As such, our immediate focus turns to the object of the children’s attention, the toy of the moment, as the key to resolving the conflict. But often, it’s not about the toy at all. It’s easy to make the unjustified leap into fearing that a child who takes things from others or refuses to share is on the road to developing selfish tendencies.

Toddlers are at a crucial stage in their development where they are beginning to establish a sense of self and a need to exert their developing autonomy in their interactions with their peers. Essentially, they are beginning to experience themselves as separate individuals and exploring how their choices and actions play out in different situations: cause and effect. I am me, and you are you. I am capable of giving and taking. These are the basic concepts that children are experimenting with in their interactions. Toddlers were born to push limits and test boundaries; this is how they learn!

Research tells us that the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotional regulation is not well developed in children under three years. Toddlers experience the world through urges and feelings. They see something that interests them, so in their mind, it becomes theirs. Whether the item belongs to another child or another child who had it first is irrelevant to them. In fact, it’s not even on their radar. They haven’t quite grasped the concept of “ownership” in the way that we understand it as adults. Consideration of others’ feelings and altering one’s plans in response is an incredibly complex social skill that belongs to parts of the brain that toddlers haven’t quite tapped into yet. And that’s okay.

This tells us that a child who takes a toy from another or refuses to share is not self-centred or spiteful. This behaviour is not an expression of bad character and is not something that needs to be fixed. This child is healthy and curious, exploring the world around them as toddlers do. Exactly where they need to be. Perfectly imperfect.

So, what now? Do we simply sit back, do nothing, and wait for children to develop these skills independently? Not exactly.

Of course, we want the children in our care to grow into kind and caring individuals. What parent or educator wouldn’t? These are fundamental human values, and while forced sharing and turn-taking isn’t the way to go, there are things that we can do to encourage this behaviour.

We’ve already established that forcing toddlers to share or take turns before they can even understand these concepts is a waste of time and makes life more challenging than it needs to be. Sure, they may comply, and we may see some semblance of the behaviour we are looking for, but it won’t be authentic.

The goal of RIE philosophy is to develop an authentic child, one who feels confident, autonomous, and secure. So, of course, we want to teach this behaviour in a way that will become an authentic expression of who they are. They will be generous, not because we say or make them do so, but because they know in their hearts that sharing what we have with others is a kind thing.

So, how do we achieve this? Read our top six tips.

1.  Pause for a moment!

When we notice children engaged in a conflict over a resource, don’t be too quick to intervene. While it may look like a struggle, remember they are experimenting, trying to figure it out, and discovering new ways of interacting. Trust their competence, take the pressure off, and give them a chance. Sometimes, they may come to an amicable solution on their own. If they do, great! And if they don’t, that’s okay too. We pick our moments of intervention carefully and ask ourselves, by intervening right now, will I take away an opportunity for this child to build her sense of autonomy?

“Just as much as is needed, but as little as possible.” - Magda Gerber


2.  Vocalise Your Observations (Sportscasting)

When we recognise that children need a little help, our best intervention strategy is to sportscast and vocalise our observations.

“Wow, you’re both really interested in that truck. It looks like Johnny is still using it...”

The key word here is neutral. Don’t take sides or imply blame. Simply describe what you see happening in front of you. When we articulate in words what children are experiencing, we leave the door open for them to come up with solutions. We show them that we trust them to think for themselves about what to do next, empowering them to persevere.

3.  Practice Empathy

Often during these situations, as I’m sure you know, emotions can become heightened very quickly as children become frustrated when things don’t pan out how they intended.

Be willing to hold space for their feelings. Don’t shush them. Don’t rush to distract or offer an alternative. Be okay with their outbursts and let them know that getting upset is okay. Feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration don’t need to be quashed. Yes, they feel big and intense and uncomfortable but that’s okay. Let them know they are safe. These situations present an opportunity to explore emotional literacy with children as they learn to identify and manage big feelings.

“I know you really wanted to have a go at that puzzle and Jane is still using it. Did that make you sad? I can see that. It’s hard to wait for the things we want. I hear you.”

“You got upset when Johnny took the truck from you. I saw that. Next time, you can hold onto it.”

There is no better feeling than knowing someone else understands how you are feeling.

“In my world, there are no bad kids. Just impressionable, conflicted young people, wrestling with emotions and impulses, trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know how”. - Janet Lansbury

4.  Model kindness

As Magda Gerber once said, “what we teach is ourselves”.

Toddlers are naturally inclined to observe others’ behaviour. They rely on responsive adults in their environment to demonstrate acceptable and expected ways of interacting. They watch us more than we realise and are constantly soaking up new information based on what they see.

So how do we teach kindness?

You guessed it! Model it! Throw kindness around like confetti! Practice it in your interactions with children, co-workers, parents, and families. When we are kind, they are learning to be kind. Be intentional in your interactions and ensure that your behaviour encompasses the attributes you try to encourage.

5.  Acknowledge kind actions

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge kindness and generosity when you see it. Sincere acknowledgement supports children to become aware of their efforts and feel pride in their behaviour. When we recognise kindness, we may say, "Johnny wanted a turn with your dinosaur, so you found him another one to use. That was kind of you!”

Note that this is different from the concept of praise. Remember, we want children to be kind towards others because it feels intrinsically good to do so, not to seek out adult approval or external rewards.

Acknowledgement comes from a place of sincerity and empowers children to do good of their own accord. In contrast, praise is a form of judgement, often acting as a “stamp of approval” which, when used too often, children can come to seek out as a form of validation, which is a whole other topic on its own, but certainly worth noting.

6.  Trust that in time, it will happen

Like any significant skill in life, sharing and the ability to be considerate of others will take time to learn. As Magda Gerba said, “readiness is when they do it."

Every child develops in their own way, at their own pace and in their own time. So, slow it right down and remember there is no rush. Keep your expectations in check, practice patience and remember how small they are. Wait and then wait again.

These little people are working hard to navigate the big wide world around them. They have so much to learn and are doing the very best they can. And they will get there. All they need is a little space, a bit of time and a lot of love.