Don't Tell Toddlers to Share

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

By Ermita


Over the past year, I have been observing my one-year-old triplets and three-year-old toddler play together. Most people assume that four siblings under the age of three would squabble frequently and refuse to share their toys. My observations, however, proved otherwise. When I allowed them to fully engage in play without my interference, they negotiated and established their own social rules on how to play as a group. Conflict did occur, but was resolved individually or together. Even in my absence, four little girls could cooperate, share, take turns, and enjoy playing together.

Recent research has demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between a child’s playing and brain development. If you leave a few kids alone in a sandbox or give them a box of Legos, they need to figure out what to do, how to play together, and what the rules of the game are. As they confront these questions during play, their brains create new connections to help them maneuver through complex social situations. Playing freely in a group setting is therefore crucial for toddlers to master social skills.

Scientific studies have demonstrated that toddlers have a strong concept of fairness and justice; one study has shown that babies as young as three months old are capable of making complex moral and ethical judgments. Children are quite able to figure out how to play cooperatively without parental interference.

As adults, when we see two toddlers tugging at the same toy, our inclination is often to step in, break them apart, and tell them to ‘share’ or ‘take turns’. However, toddlers have yet to fully understand these concepts. When we interfere in children’s negotiations, we deprive them of the opportunity to explore and practice their problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. This creates confusion that can further delay the development of sharing skills.


Instead, parents can teach desirable social behaviors like sharing and taking turns, by modeling it themselves. I find mealtimes great for this. For instance, when one of my toddlers finishes her plate of fruits and starts eyeing her sister’s, I will say, “Oh look, Livia has finished all her fruits and it seems she’s still hungry. She looks very interested in having some of your fruits,” and wait for my toddler to make a gesture to share her fruits. If she does not, I will say, “Well, if you feel like you cannot finish, let your sister have some.”

Once we understand that toddlers are navigating complex social interactions and social behaviors during play, we are able to take a step back and wait before intervening when we see two kids tussling over a toy. To help them master important social and problem-solving skills and learn how to co-exist peacefully in a social community, we should respect their boundaries and autonomy to make their own decisions, figure things out independently, and have the chance to learn from each other during play.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ermita Soenarto is a PhD student and a stay at home mom to four toddlers, three of whom are triplets. She has been looking forward to 2016 because it is the first time in her married life where she is not pregnant or having babies and hopes to finally make progress on her dissertation on the history of family and childhood in the Dutch East Indies. She blogs about parenting multiples and teaching herself to sew at craftyacademic.com.


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