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4 Year Old Struggles with Sharing

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Dr. Laura,
My 4 year-old girl has difficulty sharing toys. How do I help her deal with sharing?
Thank you!


It really is better to give than to receive, but that's only true if we feel we have enough. And this isn't something children learn through lectures, but through experience. All little ones can find it challenging to share. To them, sharing means being forced to give something up. Our goal is to change that experience for them, so they can begin to discover the silver lining of sharing -- that good feeling we feel when we make someone else happy.

So I would not force a child to share toys. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns. In general, it's best if each child's turn goes on for as long as the child wants, rather than the child being forced to give the toy up in some arbitrary number of minutes. So you would say to your daughter "When you're done with that, will you give it to Isabella? Great, thanks!"

Does that sound like a recipe for disaster? Actually, it teaches kids to be more generous, out of the goodness of their hearts rather than only when we're watching. Why? Because when we let a child use something for as long as they want, without making them share, they get the experience of giving the toy to the other child once they really feel done with it. The natural result is that they become more generous.

I know this is an unusual rule, but what's the alternative? Always snatching things away from children when we think they've had enough time with it? That teaches them to grab, and makes them more anxious about protecting their things, so it makes them less likely to share. This rule helps children feel they can use something to their heart's content without worrying about losing it. In my experience, children who are brought up this way are usually able to share more easily.

Is this hard for the other child, who has to wait? Of course! So it does take parental involvement in "helping" the other child wait. They may mean helping the child find something else to do. Or, since kids REALLY want what someone else has, it might mean helping the wanting child to cry about their intense need for that specific toy.

But there's an Aha! moment waiting on the other side of those tears. Once the child is done crying about how much they want that thing, they don't even care about that thing! Their intense need wasn't actually for that specific toy. And the crying helped them feel all that longing and move past it. So learning to wait for the toy they want -- even when they wait all day -- is actually a positive experience for children. And since the rule about using the toy for as long as they want applies equally to all the kids, the waiting child also benefits by being able to use any toy he's using for as long as he wants.

Of course, you aren't always in charge of the rules about taking turns. If your daughter is in situations (like school) that require sharing and is having a really hard time with it, that's a signal she has some big feelings that are fueling her need to hang on tightly and rigidly to things. There are two ways to help her with this: laughing and crying.

I would begin by playing lots of games about sharing, in which you beg her to share, being silly about it, so she feels free to refuse, and you lament how no one ever shares with you (Again, being silly rather than pathetic --Your goal is to get her laughing.) You can also play games in which you "have" to share with her, but you express all your anxiety about it -- "But this is my spaghetti, I cooked it, do I really have to share it with you and Daddy?!" Again, your goal is to be ridiculous and get her laughing.

After she's done a lot of laughing about the issue of sharing, find a time when you feel able to really love her through an upset, and then "schedule" a meltdown. So if you know you will be seeing a friend with whom she has a hard time taking turns, you can tell her about it in advance, and let her know that you know it is hard for her but the rule is that she'll need to take turns with things. Hopefully, she will respond with upset to that idea, and you can empathize and support her through it. That way she will work through some of her rigidity about whether she has "enough." I think you'll see a real difference in her play with other kids immediately following both the play with you, and the scheduled meltdown. Good luck!

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