Why You Shouldn't Force Your Kid to Share

Two kids holding toys.
FatCamera / iStock

Most parents have been in an uncomfortable situation where their child refuses to share a toy with another child at the playground or during a playdate. We sit there and try to coax our child into giving up the item they were enjoying because another child is interested in it.

Why do we do this? One of the principles of early childhood education is teaching children to play well together, which many parents assume means teaching their kids to share.

But, what is the goal of teaching our kids to share? Do we think teaching our kids to share will help them fit in? Do we want to train our kids to grow up into generous people by meeting the needs of others? Or is it because we want other adults to see that we are following social norms, and to make sure they don't think that we are selfish or negligent parents?

During the early formative years, kids are learning how to meet their own needs. The concepts of sharing, lending, and borrowing are too complex for young kids to understand. Toddlers have not yet developed empathy and cannot see things from another child's perspective. Forcing your child to share does not teach the social skills that we want toddlers to learn; instead, it may send many messages we don't want to send, and may actually increase how often our toddlers throw a tantrum.

Don't Send the Wrong Message

According to clinical psychologist Laura Markham, PhD, rather than teaching kids to speak up for themselves, forced sharing actually teaches some of the wrong lessons, such as:

  • Crying loudly will help a child get what they want.
  • Parents are in charge of who gets what and when they get it.
  • Children should always interrupt what they are doing to give something to another child just because the other child asks.

These are not the messages we intend to provide our children, but unfortunately, when forced to share, this is often what children may take in.

Provide Your Child With Tools

Instead of forcing your children to share, give them the tools to handle conflicts, says Dr. Markham. The goal is for our child to notice when another child would like a turn with something they are playing with, and to ensure the child gets a turn.

When another child has an item that our child wants, we hope that they will be able to control their impulses and not simply grab the item, so we should model patience. We hope they will use their words to work out the situation with the other child so that they can play with the item in the future. We should provide them with the appropriate language.

Teach Kids to Advocate for Themselves

By teaching kids to use their words, advocate for themselves, and work things out with other children, we are teaching them important life skills. Children do not need to be told when their time is up and do not need to immediately share their toys with others.

If adults are always jumping in or setting limits, children lose the ability to learn from the experience. Children need to learn how to speak up for themselves in a kind and respectful way.

Encourage Self-Regulation

Children should be able to play freely, feel fulfilled by their experience, and then be able to give the toy over when they are finished. This method encourages self-regulation, self-discipline and the ability to know when one is feeling satisfied. It also promotes generosity. Kids enjoy making other kids happy, and when they are able to do it on their own time and not when they are forced, they learn how to be kind and giving.

Teaching your child how to ask for a turn, how to wait, and how to take turns is a learning experience. When children are not forced to share, the end result is a child who learns patience and empathy and one who will be able to handle more emotionally complex situations as they grow older.

By Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD
Jill Ceder, LMSW, JD is a psychotherapist working with women, children, adolescents, couples and families.