I know a sweet, delightful 3-year-old who is very generous for her age ... unless one of the other kids in her play group wants to play with the kitchen set. She's been known to throw herself bodily across the play kitchen, just to keep another child from playing with it.
Why would this sweet child act this way? Actually, her behavior simply marks her as a normal 3-year-old. When young children don't want to share, it doesn't necessarily mean they're being selfish or insensitive. Young children think very concretely, and have a hard time looking at things from someone else's perspective.
With that in mind, it's easy to see why children sometimes have trouble sharing. A child may know that she wants to play with a particular toy. However, her thinking may not be sophisticated enough to put herself in the place of another child who wants to play with it too.
It's no wonder, then, that young children's conflicts usually revolve around objects. Sharing is hard, and no one is born ready to share all the time. But here are some things that you can do to make it easier:
Be a Good Model
First and foremost, make sure that you set a good example yourself. Let your child see you sharing with your spouse, children, and others. And be sure to mention these instances of sharing to your child, to make sure she realizes they're happening. One example probably won't be enough to drive the lesson home. Over time, though, a consistent pattern of positive behavior is bound to make an impression.
Praise Good Behavior
Similarly, stay on the lookout for times when your child shares something with someone else — whether it's with another child, an adult, or even you. Compliment your child when she's being a "good sharer." Your praise won't just make her feel good. It will also help her see herself as someone who shares. That will make her more likely to share again in the future, too.
Provide Plenty of Play Dates
It takes plenty of practice to learn to share. Play dates offer terrific opportunities for children to practice social skills in settings that their parents can supervise and even guide a bit when necessary. Of course, children with siblings or who attend day care or preschool have built-in opportunities every day to work on their sharing skills, but play dates can be helpful for them, too.
Have Something for Everyone
Most sharing problems occur when two kids want to use the same toy at the same time. So one easy way to avoid a conflict is to let each child play with an identical toy ("Here, let's give you five blocks to build with, and we'll give Kelly five blocks too").
But it's not always practical or affordable — to keep multiple copies of every toy at home. In those cases, look around your home to see if you can find another toy that's similar to the one that the kids both want. That may be close enough to defuse the situation ("How about if you play with the bear and you play with the elephant?"). Or a completely different toy might do the trick, if your child likes it as much as the toy you're asking him to share.
Practice Taking Turns
Below the age of about 3 or 4, children usually spend a lot of their playing time in "parallel play" — that is, playing separate games near each other, rather than playing together. It's a perfectly normal stage of development. However, it means that if you try to settle a conflict over a toy by suggesting that a pair of 2-year-olds play with it together, you'll probably be disappointed.
A much more effective strategy may be to encourage children to take turns with the toy. Of course, it's not reasonable to expect one child to sit and watch while the other one plays. But if you give both kids something fun to do, you can have them trade toys after a set period of time, so that everyone gets a turn to play with everything. To ease the transition, remind them when it's almost time to trade, shortly before each turn is over.
How long should the turns be? You'll be the best judge of that, because it depends on each child's individual personality and reactions. In general, though, young children aren't very patient, so short turns may be best. You probably won't want to make each turn more than a few minutes long or maybe even one minute long, if you know that one of the children finds it hard to share.
Some toys are simply too special to share, either because they're new or because your child loves them too much. So, shortly before you host a play date at your home, take a moment to talk to your child about it. Remind him that his friend is coming to play, and talk about how much fun they'll have together. Ask your child to think about whether there are any toys that he doesn't want to share with his friend. If so, put those toys away someplace where they'll be safe and untouched until after the play date is over. Then, you and your child can agree that the rest of the toys are okay to share.
Last but not least, bear in mind that learning to share is a process. It doesn't happen overnight, and many children go through ups and downs along the way.
Set goals for your child, but make sure your expectations are realistic, too. With a little patience, some well-timed support, and a whole lot of love, it won't be long before your child builds a foundation of skills that he'll use throughout his life.