How to Get Kids to Share

When my oldest son, Benjamin, was little, I realized it was up to me to teach this kid how to share. I had known this would be my responsibility long before the cutie ever visited a library story time or went to a play date, but it wasn't until then that I started to think deeply about it.

I noticed something about the way all of us moms were trying to teach our kids to share. It was awkward. Even more awkward was the interaction with other moms. Who is supposed to make their kid share in this particular situation?

Consider some scenarios: Benjamin would walk up to a kid and try to take his toy.  The kid wouldn't let go. Benjamin would step back and be thinking about what to do next. The other kid's mom would swoop in and say to her child, "Honey, you've got to share!" This other mom would wrestle the toy from her child and hand it to mine. Or she would attempt to take the toy, but not really follow through, then look at me and shrug, as if to ask me permission to let her kid keep playing. Or, she would not do anything. Then I'd wonder, "Am I supposed to be stepping in here?"

Also awkward was when I would notice a mom particularly zealous for sharing. Your kid wants something? My kid must share! My kid wants something? No, my kid must share! Observing this kind of mom I thought, "to your child sharing must mean they always lose."

All this awkwardness got me wondering, and thankfully that wondering worked out! As I watched sharing happen among adults I discovered two things. First, most of the time when we say "you need to share" what we mean is "you need to take turns." Second, to effectively take turns you have to follow a certain process: ask/respond, wait/finish up,  offer/receive. 

Taking Turns - The Process

Let's call the kid who wants something Kid #1 and the kid who has something Kid #2. Both children have a job to do at each of the three phases.


Kid #1: Our job as parents is to get our kids to ask for what they want in a nice way. Grabbing and hitting are ways to ask someone to share, but there are better ways. I focus on teaching kids to hold out their hand, and use a verbal ask. If the child is very young, I only expect them to hold out their hand. This cue works for any age and any culture. If you hold out your hand, it means I want you to give me that, anywhere you go. If the child is a little older, I prompt them to say "Can I have that?" If they're older still, I prompt them to say "May I please have that?'

Kid #2: Our job as parents is to get our kids to respond to the ask in a nice way. Yelling "NO!" and running away are ways to respond, but there are better ways. I focus on teaching kids to say either "Sure" or "Once I'm done." Sure means "Yes, I'll share this with you right away!" Once I'm done means "No, I'm not finished with this yet, but when I am I will give it to you." (Almost everything falls into one of these two categories, but I do talk about items we don't share at the end of this post.)

Wait/Finish Up

Kid #1: There is always a short waiting period between when you ask for something and when you receive it. Our job as the parent of the kid who wants something is to help them wait for their turn. This could mean distracting them with something else. This could mean setting a timer for them, so that they know when it will be appropriate to follow up.

Kid #2: If the child who has something isn't done with it, now it's time to finish up. Our job as the parent of this child is to do nothing. This can be quite difficult. But it's worth it, and I'll tell you why. If you watch and wait, you will avoid nagging. You will avoid accidentally teaching your child that sharing means losing the fight. Hang in there and be ready to help with the next step. Sometimes, it's a good idea to set a timer for your child to finish up, but try to use the timer sparingly. I've noticed that young kids often finish up a lot faster than a timer does, and the timer ends up being a distraction, maybe making them think they need to use up all their time when they're actually done with the toy already. Recognize when they're done, avoid tantrums


Kid #1: If the child with something is ready to share, this is usually a pretty smooth step, as simple as it sounds. Accept the item. However, sometimes the child isn't ready to share. In that case, it's time to take it back to step one: Ask/Respond. Stick that hand out and ask nicely once again.

Kid #2: Sometimes the child who wanted the toy has now lost interest. Our job as the parent of the child who has the toy is to help them offer the toy. This might mean holding the toy out to the other child. This might mean putting the toy in a safe place until the other child comes back. What we're trying to avoid is letting our child just drop the toy and move on to something else, without offering it to the child who asked. By helping our child offer the toy we avoid that terrible moment when he turns around, sees the other child playing with it and yells "I wasn't done!" We're also teaching our child respect for others.

Teaching It - In Real Time

That's a lot of talk about a pretty simple process! So how does it work in real time? It's most effective to teach in the moment and/or when you've set aside time to play/practice.

Here is a walk-through of how I now teach toddlers and preschoolers to take turns.

I see a child grab at something another child is holding. I go over to the child and kneel down so I am on their level. I ask them "Do you want that?" (Obviously they do, so I look for them to answer yes, but I don't wait too long.)

I say, "Hold out your hand, and say 'Can I have that'." (ASK) 
Then I turn to the child who has the object. I tell them "You can say 'Sure' or 'Once I'm done.'"  
I wait for a response.  
Often the child with the object will say "No."  
I then re-state what I said, and explain. "You can say 'Sure' or 'Once I'm done.' If you're still playing with it, say 'Once I'm done.'"  
Usually now the child will say "Once I'm done." If the child with the object pulls it close to his chest or turns away or something defensive, I look at both kids and say "That means, 'Once I'm done.' Can you say 'Once I'm done'?" (RESPOND) 
Then I watch and help the interaction finish smoothly.  
If the child has said "once I'm done" (which is usually the case), I wait with and help the child who wants a turn. We play a little something else for a minute. (WAIT/FINISH UP) 
When I see that the child with the object is done with it, I help that child give it to the one who is waiting. I often tell them to say "Here you go!" when they hand it over. (OFFER/RECEIVE)

You'll notice that it's often step one ASK/RESPOND where the most time is spent. That's okay, it's totally worth it to spend time there. Learning how to communicate is a top priority for teaching kids how to share! Even if the communication is non-verbal, communication is absolutely essential to sharing. 

If your child is having particular trouble or throwing fits when you try to teach sharing in the moment, take time to practice with some puppets or stuffed animals when it's just the two of you. Help the stuffies share with each other. Spend most of your time showing what good turn taking looks like, and then at the end mix it up with some stuffies that aren't very good at sharing.

The Words

Sure - Using the word "Sure" works really well because it doesn't have an opposite. So many times when you prompt a toddler, preschooler, or any person, to say "Yes," they say "No." Yes and No just go so well together! Let's not even bring them into the equation.

Once I'm Done - This is a simple promise, instead of a request (like "please wait" for instance). It is reassuring and undemanding. It works well.

When NOT to share

In my house, each child has one or two things they do not have to share with their siblings or friends. Usually the favorite stuffed animal or blanket is that sacred item. We say, "No, that's special to me." I've found that letting my kids say no to sharing a certain special item is actually super helpful to me as a parent. It helps me teach boundaries, and it gives me a phrase to use myself when they're getting into my special make-up bag.

Sometimes I've found myself saying to my kids, "Once I'm done..." and then, as I finish up with this item, I realize I really don't want to give it to them. At that point I'll explain, "I'm actually not going to give this to you now, because..."  or "I'm worried that if I give this to you this will happen..." Having that buffer of a few moments between the ask and the response really softens the blow. 

In Summary

If your child wants something from another child: Help your child ask. Help your child wait. Help your child ask again soon.

If your child has something another child wants: Ask your child to consider "Am I done with this right now, or will I be done, soon?" Help your child deliver.

My kids have drilled this method so much that when a sharing squabble arises, all I have to say is "Sure or once I'm done." Every now and then I have to re-teach, and that's normal. But especially now that they're getting older and they have this good foundation, sharing is pretty smooth sailing.

Remember, teach this, model it, reteach it. Use this when you're sharing or taking turns with your kids. Kids need practice and you can help them practice the right way.
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