When Kids Refuse to Share
It's totally normal, but some strategies may help.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,
My preschooler might be the worst of the worst when it comes to sharing. He refuses to share toys with his little brother, even if he’s not even playing with them. Playdates often devolve into fights over toys, too. I’m worried he’s going to lose friends because he’s such a Scrooge! Is My Kid the Asshole?
I’m going to cut straight to the chase here: No, your kid is not the asshole. According to a national survey conducted by Zero To Three, 71 percent of parents expect their kids to be able to share well by the age of 3. Ha! I mean, yes, some kids willingly share at this age — but many don’t master sharing until they are much older. When I asked Nadia Chernyak, a psychologist who studies the development of social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, she told me that kids are usually between the ages of six to eight when they “can be expected to both understand how to share fairly and reliably do so across a lot of contexts.”
Sharing a teddy bear with a friend might sound easy to you, but it requires some pretty serious emotional skills. When handing over a beloved toy, a child has to be able to manage his feelings of sadness and jealousy at handing the toy over, and he has to also be able to inhibit his burning desire to grab the toy back afterwards. This requires higher-order self-regulatory and inhibitory skills — processes overseen by the frontal lobe of the brain, which doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. Research shows that preschool kids learn to help others and cooperate much sooner than they learn to share.
These emotional challenges help to explain why, even when kids are able to grasp on some level that they should share, and even when they might actually want to share, they’re still unable to do it. In a small 2019 study, education researchers Joan F. Goodman and Maya Rabinowitz posed a hypothetical question to pre-K and kindergarten kids: Should they share some of their awesome colored blocks with friends if those friends only had terrible blocks? All the kids said yes, absolutely, they should definitely share their blocks. But when these same kids were later put to the test, all were like, hahaha, nope! and refused to share. As Chernyak explained to me, young kids have a hard time balancing their self-interested motives with their interpersonal motives. They “don't always know how to think outside their own desires in a given moment,” she said.
So what should you do when your kids don’t share — and what’s the best way to encourage them to? Here are some science-backed strategies.
Manage your expectations, don’t shame your kids for not sharing, and acknowledge when they do share (especially when it was hard for them).
Because sharing is truly a hard skill to master, it’s best not to chide or shame your kid when they have trouble doing it. “There are a host of reasons why a young child might not share, many of which have nothing to do with the child being unmotivated or uninterested in others,” Chernyak said.
Instead, if your kid is being prodded to share and having trouble with it, acknowledge and validate their feelings. This feels really hard, doesn’t it? or I know sharing can be difficult are good places to start. You could also turn to the other child — the one your kid is not sharing with — and say something like It looks like Thomas is having trouble sharing his Captain America right now. Let’s find something else for you to play with.
When your kid does share — especially when you can tell it was hard for them — acknowledge that, too. I’m proud of you for sharing even though I know it wasn’t easy! However, you might want to avoid using categorical labels — referring to your kid as “a sharer” or encouraging them to be “a sharer.” One study found that when kids were told to “be helpers” and then those kids had trouble helping (they were asked to help pour milk into cups but spilled some), those kids became less inclined to try to help again in the future.
Help your child consider other people’s feelings rather than instructing them to “be fair.”
Fairness is one of those concepts that is really, really hard for little kids to grasp. They’ll bend the concept to their interests, claiming, for instance, that it’s absolutely fair for them to get more ice cream than their sister because they like ice cream more.
So instead of appealing to fairness, try to get your kid to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, which helps to foster an important skill called theory of mind. Maybe you could say, If you did share your Legos with Sally, how might that make her feel? Or It looks like Sally would be really happy to get the chance to play with some of your dolls! Research shows that the more parents talk to kids about other people’s feelings, the more likely those kids are to share and be helpful in other ways. It’s also important to keep in mind that younger kids (such as toddlers) can’t always discern what other children want or need, so it can help to spell it out for them with words.
You can also remind your kid of times when they got the short end of the sharing stick. Remember when you went to Lizzie’s house, and she refused to share her Barbie dolls? Remember how sad you felt that you didn’t get to play with them? I wonder if Leroy might feel a little sad right now too. As Goodman and Rabinowitz concluded in their 2019 paper, “we have a better chance of reaching young children through their feelings than through their reasoning.”
Let kids take self-regulated turns.
Often, when we step in to “help” kids resolve sharing disputes, we force kids to share on our timeline. We say things like OK, Teddy, it’s time to give the truck to your brother, as we grab the truck out of Teddy’s hands. But, as I learned from child psychologist Laura Markham (who read about this approach in Heather Shumaker’s book It’s OK Not To Share), this approach may not do what you think it does. As I wrote in my book:
Consider what happens when you step in to force your first-born to hand something over to your second-born. He’s suddenly going to feel angry at you — the person in power who has taken away his toy — and he’s also rather mad at his little sibling, who now gets the thing he desperate wants. He’s feeling mad and unfairly treated. The whole experience is not going to teach him to learn how to share. And your other kid? Your other kid has just learned that if he yells loudly enough, he will get exactly what he wants.
What if, instead, you had your kids take self-regulated turns? Now, bear with me, because this approach sounds a little insane, and yes, it might be hard to implement at first. But with time, it gets easier — and could help your kids share more.
Self-regulated turns work like this: You allow each child to decide how long is turn is before he shares. I know, I know — this means the other kid is going to be waiting for a long-ass time and might have a big meltdown in the process. (It’s fine if that happens; acknowledge and validate the frustrated child’s feelings. It’s so hard to wait!) But here’s what makes the concept so brilliant: When the first child finally decides to share his toy, he’s giving it up willingly — and then both kids experience positive feelings during that moment. The approach “helps children appreciate that (a) sharing is hard, and (b) that they nonetheless are capable of doing it,” Chernyak said.
It’s also OK to set limits on how long a child’s turn can be. With siblings, perhaps the turn has to end by bedtime at the latest, so the next morning, no matter what, the other kid gets their turn. During a playdate, maybe the longest the turn can be is 30 minutes. The point is that you’re not arbitrarily deciding when time’s up, and you’re also giving the kids a chance to share on their own terms.
Science suggests that self-regulated turns could encourage kids to share more in the future. In a 2013 study, Chernyak and her colleague Tamar Kushnir found that preschoolers who made the choice to share some of their stickers were more likely to share again in the future compared with kids who had instead been instructed by grown-ups to share.
Stay tuned for some exciting news about my newsletter next week. And thanks to those of you who filled out my brief survey. (If you didn’t, you still can!)
Super fun news: I was profiled in The Guardian yesterday! I am so thrilled (and, honestly, overwhelmed) to see this out there. It’s a lovely piece about me, why I wrote my book, and what the book encompasses. At first, I was mortified that the photographer wanted to take pictures of me in our very untidy and cluttered dining-room-turned-art-room, but now I kind of love it, because it so perfectly captures the messiness of parenting. Read the profile here!