Why won’t my toddler share her toys?

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My little girl Hannah is 18 months old.  She is very, very sweet with us at home, but she can have a very difficult time when she is with other children.  Mostly, it’s about sharing toys.  She wants to grab what someone else is holding or keep all of her own toys to herself (even if she’s not playing with them).  I am very embarrassed when this happens, but if I try to make her share she gets very upset.  Other parents say their children do the same thing, but I never see it except with Hannah!  I don’t want her to grow up to be selfish.

I can assure you that Hannah’s behavior is typical for a toddler her age. Toddlers may enjoy being with other children, but they often don’t play as well as parents expect!  I’m glad that other parents are reassuring you. If you aren’t worrying about your child being abnormal or on the verge of more problems in the future, it will be easier for you to relax and enjoy yourself more while helping Hannah to gradually learn more social skills.

When you are playing with Hannah at home you have probably noticed that her play is very self-directed, even if she wants to play with you.  A toddler is very ‘egocentric”—put simply, she thinks the world should revolve around her. She probably likes you to respond to whatever she asks, preferably immediately. She is probably happiest when she is telling you what to do, whether in gestures or words, rather than the other way around.  She loves to explore her environment and the objects in it in her own way, probably not in yours.  

One of her games may be to offer you a toy.  Sometimes she may decide that it is a lovely game to continue to bring you toy after toy.   Soon after that she may decide that it is time to take away the toys.   Of course, you probably don’t mind having a toy truck deposited in your lap and then removed.  However, when your toddler wants to play this game with another child who also wants to control the giving and taking, the two children may wind up in a tugging match.  Hannah doesn’t understand—yet—that the other toddler doesn’t see the world the way she does—he thinks it revolves around him!  

Toddlers don’t understand the "give and take" reciprocal behavior that we as adults recognize as fundamental to social interaction. We teach and model it all the time—teaching a child to say please or thank you, waving “bye” are all examples of way we teach our one-year-olds that other people have a point of view.  These behaviors are learned because we teach them over and over and we give approval and positive response when they occur.  It’s the same with the give and take of sharing. Toddlers will learn how to play and share over time, with lots of practice and encouragement.  It probably won’t help to force the behavior.  

As you have seen,  if you pressure your one year old to "share nicely", she will resist.  In fact, forcing the issue is a good way to get a toddler to cling to her possessions, even if the object of her desire belongs someone else.  Sometimes you won’t have a choice—you can’t let Hannah grab a toy from a child who bursts into tears or who brought the toy to the playgroup! However, some children who are constantly pressured to share their own toys as soon as they start to play may get so anxious about being forced to let go that they will hold on even tighter.  They may end up becoming more possessive than they would have been if left alone.

Another reason for what looks like “selfish” behavior occurs because toddlers frequently want to imitate whatever someone else is doing. Have you noticed that if you are using the telephone your toddler wants to use it too? A toy will be ignored by two children for half an hour, but as soon as one toddler picks it up and begins to play with it, the other toddler wants it for herself.  Within moments, quiet play can dissolve into a  battle.  Most of the time, the struggle will be brief, because one year olds, despite the passions of the moment, don't attach the larger meaning to these quarrels that their parents do.  It will take lots of experience with your child and with others to learn when to help and when to hold back.

Parents don’t always have to get between warring toddlers. You will, of course, intervene if the struggle continues or escalates. But that doesn’t mean the battle should be ignored.  If children are upset you have a chance to talk to them later about how they felt. With a toddler you are doing the talking, of course—all you can do is guess, “You wanted that toy and Henry wanted it, too.  It made you mad that you couldn’t have it right then.  It made him mad when you grabbed it.” Remember to talk after your child has stopped crying or yelling—it’s a waste of time to talk when she’s upset (it doesn’t work with adults, either!) Parents  shouldn't pass judgment on the behavior of either child as being selfish or aggressive.  They must simply tailor their responses to the needs of each child to help them learn to play with less conflict.

Prevention and planning is the key. Prevention begins at home. There are many ways you can teach toddlers about sharing and playing sociably.   Long before your child is talking, she is learning from listening to you.  You can teach about sharing by praising her when you see her give something to you or someone else:  "Thank you for giving your blocks with me, Hannah.  Do you want them back?"  When you play together, take one toy and say, "Will you take turns with me?" and if she says yes, thank her. (The phrase “taking turns” is sometimes easier for young children to understand than the more abstract word “sharing”.) When you are playing together, play a game like tossing a toy into a box, handing her a toy and saying “Your turn.” If she refuses, say "Maybe you'll want to play later."  When your toddler wants to taste your food, or wants you to taste hers, you can tell her that you are happy to “share”.  Let your child learn that taking turns and sharing is pleasant, not just words that she hears when there is a conflict. 

You can use stuffed bears to tell Hannah stories about little bears having fun with each other.  Within the story you can describe the way the little bears have fun taking turns.  You can also include a time when they don’t take turns and talk about how each bear might be feeling.  This kind of entertaining show is often more effective in teaching a toddler how to behave than talking to her directly.

When you are at your playgroup, Hannah may need to have you stay close by.  If she starts to move in on another child, interrupt her before she misbehaves. Distract her with a different toy or try to engage both children in playing with you.  Helping your child to avoid getting into conflicts gives her a chance to find ways of having fun without taking over the toys of others.  We all learn best by doing things right!

Not all children will get into a battle.  In fact, some parents worry if their toddler doesn't seem to mind if another child pushes him aside or takes his toys.  He may cry for a moment or simply find something else to do.  A parent may feel that her child is being too “passive” and feel that he should stand up for himself.  Over time, children develop the verbal skills to be able to assert themselves more, but many children don’t want to engage in a struggle. At this age it's usually best to allow a toddler to react in the way that he chooses.  If he comes to you for comfort, you can help him to find another activity.  You can verbalize for him, “You were playing with the truck and Annie took it from you.  Shall we find another truck for you?” If he is very upset, you can verbalize his feelings by saying, "It makes you sad when Sarah grabs your toy".  The risk of giving too much attention and sympathy is that a child may figure out that it is more interesting to be the victim than it is to solve problems on his own! Instead, practice behaviors at home that will help your child in a group.  The bear stories will work here, too.

A parent recently described to me how her son learned to assert himself to a child who took his toys. Her son was in awe of an older and bigger toddler in his play group, so much that he repeatedly allowed the other child to grab all of his toys without protest.  Every week, his mother saw a disappointed look on her son's face. She  knew that her son usually asked for help when he needed it, and he never did.  One day, when the children were playing outside in the sand, she noticed her son set aside the shovel and pail he was using when he saw the other child approaching.  Her son quickly put the shovel down and picked up a plastic car. Sure enough, the bigger boy walked up and took it from him, Her son went back to the shovel and pail he had been playing with in the first place. The mother realized that he had figured out a way to solve the problem on his own in his own way!

Of course, you can’t always assume your toddler will be this strategic, so it’s important for to plan ahead. You can prevent conflicts over sharing by anticipating the behavior of the children in the group. As the number of children playing together increases, so does the level of stimulation and potential for conflict.  Parents need to stay close to toddlers at play rather than sitting apart and waiting for problems to occur before moving in.  If certain toys are very popular in a playgroup, it's a good idea to have several of them.  If a child has a special toy he never shares, it's best not to bring it to the group.  Having activities that everyone can join, such as water play or messing with play dough, will help toddlers to play together with less conflict.  When you take Hannah on a visit, it may help if she brings a few of her toys from home (or it may make things worse!)  That way she won’t expect the host child to share his toys, so he may find it easier to share. Lots of children like to hold on to something during transitions.  If the object doesn’t belong to them, be prepared for distress unless you have a substitute. When it’s time to leave, you can distract Hannah from the host's toys by offering a favorite object from home that you've saved for this moment (Don't stop on the way home to buy that toy that your child liked so much on the visit--she may be much less interested in it if no one else is playing with it!) 

This are the years to teach Hannah what it means to be sociable, and how much fun it can be to be with other children. These behaviors are learned over a lifetime, not in a few months.  Prevent conflict when possible, don't force the issue of sharing, and have confidence that someday Hannah will understand that other people have a point of view!