When should a child be able to share?

Short answer: Later than you think. But first, let’s define sharing. 

The definition of sharing

For the sake of this article, sharing will be defined as children’s joint use of a resource or toy. Essentially it is when a child is able to hand a preferred item over to another child with the assumption, or hope, of getting it back. 

What is joint attention?

The foundational skill for sharing is something called shared or joint attention. Joint attention is a behavior in which two people focus on an object or event for the purpose of interacting with each other. That reciprocal experience of looking at something together develops in infancy and continues to develop throughout childhood. 

Joint attention is important for developing cognitive skills like perspective taking and social communication, both of which are also prerequisites to sharing. Basically, your child needs to look at something, then look at you to see if you are also looking at that thing. Then, they should be able to look once more at the item and understand that you are looking at it, too. If they cannot do this yet, then sharing will be difficult.

When can we ask our child to share a toy with a friend? 

Parents assume that when their child is 2 or 3, they now have the words and should be able to use them to say “may I have a turn?” or “you can have it when I’m done.” This, however, is not the case. Sharing is hard work and requires several skills that are still emerging at 2 and 3, such as:

  • Perspective taking
  • Self regulation 
  • Conflict resolution
  • Pragmatic language skills

Therefore it is more likely that sharing develops, in neurotypical children, around 3.5 or 4 years of age. Neurodiverse children or children presenting with developmental delays will share later than that and that’s OK. 

Photo of how to help a child learn to share

How can you help your child practice sharing? 

Ages 1-3:

  • Have your child share with you and label it as sharing to help them learn what sharing means. For example, “You are sharing your egg shaker with me, thank you. I love it when you share.”
  • Practice labeling your child’s feelings. “You felt so sad when your sister was holding your car. You wanted it back right away.”
  • Do not force your child to share or take something away from them to give another child a turn. This just teaches them that adults can take their things away. They are not learning anything about sharing when this happens. Instead, try to provide each child with similar items whenever you can. For example, two buckets at the sandbox or two dolls to play with on a playdate. When it’s unavoidable, try to redirect them to another activity. 

Ages 3.5-4.5

Around this age, children are becoming more socially motivated and they want to play more interactively with friends. If you notice your child making strides with their overall impulse control, you can increase their opportunities to practice sharing. Here are some ways to do that.

  • Narrate their attempts to share like replaying a scene. “Wasim, you wanted a turn with the car and when you finally got your turn Caroline wanted the car back. You weren’t ready to give it back yet.” By narrating what happened you are slowing things down and giving the children space to process and reflect on what just happened. 
  • Try using a timer. Sharing requires an understanding of time. “In a few minutes you can have it back” only helps if you have a solid understanding of what a few minutes means. If you have a sand timer or even a timer app on a phone that you can put up and out of reach it might help your child manage the ‘waiting patiently’ part of sharing, making it more concrete for them.
  • Plan for play dates in advance. Put away very special toys like loveys, identify which of your child’s toys they would be happy to share, plan to put out materials that include more than one of things like a sensory table with a variety of dinosaurs and water beads or a train track with a bucket full of different trains.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate successes. The more a child is able to share, and remember times that they’ve successfully shared, the more they will draw upon those successes.

Ages 5-7

Children at this age care about and acknowledge equity, kindness, and often talk about things like fairness. So, it’s easy to tap into this intrinsic interest. and point out what’s fair and what isn’t in a given situation. 

  • Point out what’s fair and what isn’t in a given situation. “You have three hoops and he only has one. What can we do to make this feel more fair for everyone?”
  • Parents should pull back as often as they can and encourage children to resolve the problem on their own. Knowing that the adults have faith in their ability to resolve a sharing dilemma often disarms them and raises the maturity bar. You can say, “I know you two have solved trickier situations than this, you both have a lot of great strategies to figure out sharing. I am going to leave the room and I have a feeling you two are going to figure it out.”

Social skills like turn taking and problem solving don’t come naturally for all children, which can definitely make sharing more difficult. If you notice that your early elementary child is still struggling with sharing, practice at home with role playing and social scripts. Practicing what to say in certain scenarios will help as they continue to develop their ability to read people’s intentions and body language. 

Ultimately children are motivated by developing friendships through play. They move from playing alongside each other to wanting to play more interactively and in doing so become increasingly more interested in thinking about one another’s thoughts and feelings. 

You can watch the progression of sharing happen in your child. When they are 1-2 years old, they share by offering a taste of food to their parents and caregivers. When they are around 4, they cope better with waiting and when they are 6-7, egalitarian efforts become more important. Whatever type of sharing your family or culture values and considers to be “real sharing”, the important thing is the support that parents lend on the road to their child being able to share.