Importance of sharing in early childhood: Why does my toddler not share?

“Mine, mine, mine, …” Your toddler thinks every toy belongs to him, even when you have a play-date and you are a a friend’s house? What is the importance of sharing in early childhood? At what age do you think your child should be able to share? Should they be able to share by the time they are two, three or older?

The findings of the comprehensive 2015 research ZERO TO THREE showed that a lot of parents overestimated their toddler’s ability to share. Nearly half of them believed their kids could learn to share by the time they are two years old.

However,  according to the cognitive psychologists, sharing doesn’t develop until a child is three or four. Toddlers are seemingly mentally incapable of sharing.

That may be because they haven’t yet developed what’s known as “theory of mind”:

Theory of mind is the ability to differentiate one’s own perspective and preferences from someone else. A classic experiment in theory of mind is known as the “Sally-Anne test”. A child is told Sally has a basket and Anne has a box. Sally puts an object in her basket, then leaves. While Sally is gone, Anne moves the object to the box.

The child is then asked where Sally will look for the object when she returns. Correctly answering that Sally will look in her basket signals the child understands they have a perspective that is different from Sally’s.

Theory of mind is important for developing empathy, making friends and even doing well academically, Lytle says. Parents can help their children develop perspective by talking them through scenarios like the Sally-Anne test, or reading books that help them to build cognitive parallels. For example, in a book where a character goes to a doctor, they can compare the situation to when the child went to the doctor and discuss how the experiences were similar or different.

According to that 2015 research, children are not willfully obstinate. So parents, don’t despair. Your children might just not be mentally ready. Surveys like this might make it easier for parents to cope with their child’s behavior. It is probably only a question of time until they start sharing like you might expect them to.

What do you think?

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