Teaching Kids to Share

by Dr. Virginia Smith

I know it shouldn’t be this way, but, as a young mother, nothing was much more embarrassing to me than when I witnessed my children, who when at home were the most generous and caring little beings on the planet, turned into “mine monsters” when playing in a group of children they didn’t know. On the inside I would cringe in horror as I saw them protectively begin to claim nearby toys when they would perceive that others might be interested in them. Or, even WORSE, when I would witness the tug-of-war that would ensue when there were multiple claims on the same object.

As a parent who wanted my children to develop a sharing and generous spirit, I would intervene and try to mediate the situation, which is a good thing. However, there are better ways to intervene, and other, less-productive means to accomplish what is a fair outcome in situations like this.

Age Makes a Difference

Erik Erikson, a noted clinical psychologist who studied human development, identified eight stages of human development. The first, from birth to about 18 months, is when children develop the capacity to trust. When they are between 18 months and three years of age, brain development has enabled children to become more independent. Then something magical seems to happen. Between the ages of three and five, children mature to the point where they genuinely initiate. They begin to assert power and control over their environment.

Because children between the ages of three and five are developing the ability to act upon and within their environment, it is an important age to emphasize the importance of sharing. They are able to reason to the level that their actions impact others – and this is an important first step toward developing a generous spirit. Of course, we begin much younger than this stage in practicing sharing and generosity, but it is during this age that efforts begin to encourage initiative on the part of the child.

What Can Parents Do?

Play the passing game. One of the first things, as a parent, you can do to encourage sharing, is to, when your child is very young, play a game with them where you pass an object back and forth repeatedly. As you pass the object, you can reinforce the physical action by saying the words, “my turn,” and “your turn.” Children begin to realize, through this play, that when they give a desired object to another person when sharing, they do not lose it forever. Also, as odd as it may seem, they begin to develop muscle memory of letting go which they learn to associate with a positive reaction/interaction.

Use a timer. As your child learns to pass an object back and forth, you can introduce using a timer. When the timer indicates, that is when the object goes to the next person in line. While it may seem unusual to use a timer for the simple game of back-and-forth, it gets your child used to the concept that when their time is up, it is another person’s turn.

Practice what you preach. Model good behaviors you want your children to adopt. When they see you sharing, they not only develop a better understanding of what that involves, they will mimic your behavior.

Recognize and praise. Children are natural-born pleasers. What we reward through praise and recognition we see more of. It is important to be specific, and use descriptive language when praising so that children know exactly what they did that was a good choice. Saying something like “Did you see how happy Jason was when you shared your cars with him? Not only is he happier but I’m sure he thinks that you are a good friend,” is much more helpful than “You’re awesome!” Although those are nice words to hear as well.

By introducing (educating) the concept of sharing, and then recognizing and praising when we see our children make good choices to share, we can help them think of themselves as generous and sharing individuals. Our language becomes their internal script which, in turn, influences their behavior and choices.


Dr. Virginia Smith is a speaker, author, and life-long educator. A Kamm Distinguished Fellow in Academics, Research, and Leadership, she holds degrees in family services, business, and education with areas of concentration in curriculum design and development.

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