How to get toddlers to share toys

A friend and I were sitting on the floor with our 18-month-olds as they played with a kids’ construction set, and you can guess what happened next. My kid tried to bogart the hammer from her playmate, and her playmate declined to hand it over. My friend said, “No, no, we need to share.” She tried to take the toy out of her daughter’s hand; her daughter held on tighter. “Can you share?” she pleaded, her blood pressure on the rise.

Anyone with a toddler knows exactly what I’m talking about. We all know that toddlers suck at sharing, but we still hope our kid will graciously abandon the sought-after toy every time (and thus we’ll escape any potential judgment by the other parent).

I was working on my book, and I’d just read about this study that I found fascinating.

The researchers wanted to know: What kind of information does a child need to be able to help someone else? Does that change if “helping” means the child has to sacrifice a belonging of his own?

In the study, an adult pretended to be cold. A blanket was within reach of the child, who was either 18 months old or 30 months old. The adult went through progressively more explicit cues, five to seven seconds each, until the child brought over the blanket.

  1. Gestures: Shivering, rubbing and hugging oneself, saying “Brrr.”
  2. Naming the internal state: “I’m cold.”
  3. Stating a general need for an object: “I need something to make me warm.”
  4. Labeling the object needed: “A blanket!”
  5. Nonverbal request: Looking at the child, then the blanket, then the child.
  6. Less subtle nonverbal request: Gesturing to the blanket.
  7. General verbal request: “Can you help me?”
  8. Specific verbal request: “Can you bring me the blanket?”

Guess at which point the average 18-month-old figured it out. Step 6.

But by 30 months old? Step 2. Unless it was the child’s own blanket that the child had to share. Then, the 30-month-old resisted until Step 4.

The experiment highlights the difference between empathic helping (I can see you need help, so I’ll help you) and altruistic helping (I’ll help you even though it requires sacrifice on my part). The latter simply takes longer to develop.

So we can see why, in the middle of an even more emotional situation like a tug-of-war over a toy, it’s pretty tough for a toddler to act altruistically.

I take two things from this study when it comes to toy grabs. The first is that hanging back for a minute, and seeing if the kids will work things out on their own, gives the kids practice at reading others’ cues and climbing up this developmental ladder. (It helps to talk about it with the other parent first.)

Second, when we parents step in with “We need to share,” the request is too general for a toddler to quickly grasp. We’re somewhere around Step 1. We have a better chance of getting our point across if we skip to Step 6 and gesture to show what we would like to happen. Or, if we’re really feeling the heat, jump to Step 8 and provide explicit instructions:

“Your friend would like a turn. Can you hand the toy to your friend?”

I shared this second point with my friend as we sat on the floor with our kids. She turned to her daughter and said, “Your friend would like a turn. Can you hand the toy to your friend?” And her daughter did–happily. She even seemed proud of herself.

My friend and I looked at each other and went, “Whoa!” Of course, there’s no way this will work every time. But it’s been a great tool in my parenting toolbox.

Your action item for the day: 

Think of a generic phrase you tend to use. (“Be careful” is my favorite.) Now write down a specific action that would describe what you mean. Say the situation is your toddler clearing his breakfast dish from the table. A specific phrase might be “Thumbs on top.” (Thanks to Katie at Kids Cook Real Meals for that one.)

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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