Friday, September 7, 2012

Teaching Toddlers about Sharing

A friend recently asked me, "Can you give some practical ways to teach unselfishness and kindness to my toddlers with regards to sharing?"

Children are born thinking only of what they want or need. This is perfectly normal and the way God designed them so they will survive their childhood. (ie, have all of their needs met) As they reach the toddler stage and begin interacting with the toys and people in their environment, it becomes time to gently begin to teach them that there are other people in this world and we must begin thinking of them. :)

Below are some of the practical ways we teach our children to show kindness and unselfishness.

(Disclaimer: My children are not perfect. Let me repeat that: My children are NOT perfect. Nor do I expect them to be. Please don't read this and think, She has it SO together all the time! because I fail just like you do. I only share in the hopes of offering encouragement to others on this journey of godly mothering. :))

Okay, back to the practical.


(1.) Actively teach "taking turns" instead of sharing

Let me begin by saying that I don't force my children to "share".

(Okay, just lost a bunch of readers. LOL)

Let me explain. I've had some parents tell me that they've told their children "everything in this house belongs to Daddy and Mommy" in a well-intentioned desire to teach that everthing we have ultimately belongs to God. They make their children share whatever they're playing with, whenever someone else wants it. 

But adults certainly don't "share" this way! If you walked up to my house and expected to use my things without my permission, I'd probably call the police. :) Even my closest friends and family members would ask nicely if they wanted to borrow my things. And I would have the freedom to say no if I currently needed the item OR didn't trust that they would treat it correctly. :)

We cannot teach our children to "give up their rights" unless they have rights to give up. For that reason, most of the toys in our home belong to one individual child. (Exceptions are legos, books, crayons, etc.) The owner of the toy may choose if and when they desire to share the toy with someone else. If a non-owner would like to play with a toy that belongs to a sibling, we teach them to ask, "When you're done playing with that, may I have a turn?" There's something very unthreatening about the "when you're done" part that usually helps the owner to be less likely to want to scream "MINE!" and run the other way. :) They know that they are free to play as long as they like, and then offer a turn. With the short attention spans toddlers possess, it's not usually long before the owner is bored and willingly handing over said toy.

If a toddler is playing with a toy that does not belong to them and the owner decides they would like to have a turn, the toy is immediately given to the owner. (Now, obviously this is a great "training opportunity" and we try to guide the owner to allowing the other child to continue playing with the toy. But if they want it back, it is theirs, so we allow them to nicely take it back. The non-owner can then ask the "When you're done...?" question and start the process from there. :))

Four ways to teach this taking turns mindset:

----------Role-play: Practice frequently, especially if the child is struggling. Script exactly what you want them to say: "Gabbey, can you ask Ethan for a turn with his firetruck? Good job! Ethan, can you give Gabbey a turn when you're done? Good job thinking of others, buddy!"

---------Coach: Even though a sports team may practice frequently, the coach doesn't go out to dinner on game nights and leave the team to play without his continual coaching. :) Stay close by, have your children play in the same room as you, and supervise their play. Catch "fighting" quickly and coach them through the script you've been role-playing.

----------Praise: Would you rather be disciplined for your failures or praised for your successes? Children are the same way. Praise goes such a long way with toddlers---act animated, use expression in your voice, and verbally praise good behavior. "Lyssie, you let Ethan have a turn! You must be such a big girl to be thinking of others! Look at Ethan's 'happy smile'---you made him so happy!"

Personal example: We had a meeting after church last Sunday night. I asked Ellie to take Ethan (3) to play in the nursery for a few minutes since it had been a long day and he had sat so well during the service. She came back a few minutes later to tell me he had tackled a little boy in order to get the toy he wanted (SEE--told you they aren't perfect, lol!). After some time-out to think and an apology to the little boy, I asked Ethan what he should have done instead of tackling. "Ask him for a turn!" he replied. Then he went over to the little boy and said, "When you're done with that, may I have a turn?" Ethan waited for a few minutes, and the little boy moved on to something else and gave up the prized truck. :) I praised Ethan for his patience and kind words.

(2.) Model unselfish behavior

While you're teaching, role-playing, coaching, and praising, you should also be modeling unselfish behavior to your children. Very young toddlers may not "get" this, but as your children begin to mature, they will learn more from your actions than they ever do from your words or discipline.

Can I repeat that, in case you were skimming? :)

Your children learn more from your ACTIONS than they ever do from your words or discipline.

How do you respond when your little ones ask you for something while you're preoccupied? Do you sigh or mentally complain? What do you say when they want another bite of your favorite candy? Do they feel valued, appreciated, important, and cherished? Do you bless them daily with loving, patient words? Are you finding yourself disciplining over and over again---only to realize that you often fail in the same area?

If you have a harsh, authoritative parenting approach or a lazy, unsacrificial "it's all about me 'cause I'm the Mom" approach, don't be suprised when your children don't have heartfelt empathy for each other and don't want to share.

Someday I'll blog about the huge paradigm shift I experienced in my parenting between my third and fourth children. I don't have room to put it in this post. But I will say this, because I've experienced it firsthand in my own home:

Empathy, gentleness, kindness, and unselfishness are best taught by modeling.

BE what you want your children to BE!

Okay, you're saying, I get that, but what about the practical---HOW do I model unselfishness to my children?

Three ways to model unselfish behavior:

--------Verbalize: Tell your children when you're being unselfish or thinking of others. Don't mope around and expect them to just "get it"---TELL them! "Sweetheart, you go first. Mommy will think of others this time. It makes me happy to let you go first." "Little buddy, you look sad! Would you like me to take you outside and push you on the swing? It will help you feel better if I play with you when you're sad." "Honey, would you like a bite of Mommy's treat? I like to share my special things with you because sharing makes us both happy!"

My older children will often not take a bite of their food at mealtime until I sit down and take my first bite. They learned this by my verbalization that they were often on seconds before Mommy even took a bite. :) I don't ask or expect them to wait, but I love the unselfishness expressed by their patience. I could make them wait for me, but then it would be forced and not heartfelt kindness.

---------Praise: Openly praise your husband (or wife) in front of your children. "Daddy is so unselfish! He's thinking of others by stopping to get you ice cream even though he doesn't care for any." "Mommy has worked SO unselfishly today, teaching and serving you. Why don't you give her a giant hug and say thank you, Mommy?" "That's the last piece of chicken and even though he's still hungry, your Daddy thought of you and saved it for you! Thank you, Daddy!"

---------Serve: When you're tired, when there's three spilled drinks in one meal, when a little one needs you for the third time in a row and it's 2 am, when you can't potty alone, when you wish for a break, when you just don't feel like getting up one more time......SERVE. Empty yourself of you and let Jesus serve your children through you. The Savior of the world, the God of the universe, Jesus Himself gently and unselfishly washed the filthy feet of the one He already knew would betray Him. Motherhood is, at it's essence, all about servanthood. Your children will learn best how to serve others by experiencing your loving service to and for them.

In summary, in our home, we teach "taking turns" by role-playing, coaching, and praising, and we model unselfishness by verbalizing our actions, praising our spouse, and unselfishly serving our children.


  1. I agree with this completely. As a mom and childcare provider, I can truly say it is all about taking turns vs. sharing, and the first lesson is that there is the waiting time for the first kid's turn to be over. Once they get that down and know they'll have a turn themselves, things are so much easier. When I say, "it's not your turn yet," they completely understand and there isn't any whining about it. Like your kids, mine aren't perfect either and some tackling and snatching sometimes does occur.

  2. Thank you. I'm going to use several of your ideas. I love your parenting tips.


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