My child won’t share. Is it a real problem or just a part of growing up? Pamela Schoemer, MD of UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics discusses what is developmentally appropriate for children, and ways you can encourage them to share.

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– [Narrator] This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgments when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider.

– Is it a real problem or just a part of growing up? What can you do if your child won’t share? Hi, I’m Tonia Caruso. Welcome to this UPMC HealthBeat Podcast. And joining us right now is Dr. Pamela Schoemer. She’s a pediatrician with UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Well, thank you for inviting me. I agree, and the question that you ask is true. Sometimes it’s a problem, sometimes it isn’t. But it is definitely part of growing up.

– OK. So let’s talk about, is there ever a time when it is normal for a child not to share? Where should they be developmentally?

– When we think about toddlers, they don’t call toddlerhood the terrible twos for, you know, an unknown reason. They’re in the “mine” category. They’re learning who they are. It’s really pretty normal for them to want their possessions, and if they see something, to want to go for it. It’s not until they learn to reflect other people’s emotions and see the benefit in sharing: that everybody has more fun when we play together. Parents can get embarrassed when their children have tantrums. But, really, when they’re exhibiting that, it’s normal development. In fact, when they are meeting their milestones, we want them to advocate for themselves, to learn about themselves, to learn what is theirs, what is not theirs. So, truly, it’s normal. You want to demonstrate from early ages that sharing is part of an expectation, it’s part of building skills, it’s part of building their relationship with themselves, their family, and their friends to come.

– Are there things you can do as a parent to help your child through this?

– Absolutely. So, we really want to start to teach our children to share very young. We all know babies will give us something and then want it back. And, so, labeling that sharing puts that idea out there. Not that we expect or are going to grab it out of their hand if they don’t want to share that time, but we give that positive patience approach to it. As they get older, we want to encourage play dates. We want to encourage them to have friends so that we can talk about sharing, but also when they’re having a tantrum or they need to wait a turn, it’s OK to let them express their feelings and be there with them, explain that, “I know you’re frustrated, you wanted to play with that, but you will get your turn.” So, again, that positive that it’s not the end of the world, that they will get their turn, but that sharing is part of our lives and expected.

– Right. So, before we got started, you said even when a child was an infant –

– Yes.

– you can begin this process. That sort of blew my mind. Tell me a little bit about that.

– Absolutely. So, when they first start to grasp something, which is in the months old, they’ll oftentimes try to hand it to you. When you take it from them, you can say, “Thank you for sharing. Here, let me share it back,” and give it back to them. And it just introduces that as a positive social interaction. And it takes time, even as adults, for us to learn those social skills. It also draws attention to the fact that we ourselves share and that we like to share. Because, again, they’re not going to like to share; they’re not always going to give up that item. But in some cases, that’s a necessary part of life.

– And so how do you have this conversation with a 2-year-old about sharing?

– Right. So, I think before, it’s important to talk about them. So, when Mary’s coming to play, what should we ask her she wants to play with? Sometimes there are toys that are just way too precious. They’re not going to share those, and that’s OK. Put those ones away. We want them, again, to feel like they have some control. But, trying to have them plan: Think about how sharing is going to make the day more fun. In the moment, though, when it happens, oftentimes you just have to distract them. If there’s a toy that they just can’t get over, they both need it, they’re both grabbing at it, sometimes removing it. And also talking about that aggressive part. You know, if somebody has a toy and somebody grabs it out of their hand, that’s scary. So, they may strike back. You have to break that apart as a parent because we don’t want anybody to get hurt or to think that’s how you get what you want. But, allowing them to be patient, talking about some different strategies, like taking turns or finding another toy to play with, is OK. And, then, it’s after the fact. Give them a chance to start again. And then even after the play date’s over, say, “You know, when you and Mary shared, wasn’t it more fun? Wasn’t playing together better than when everybody was crying and grabbing toys?” And that’s going to make that better concept for them. May not even be at 2; it may be closer to 3 when that’s going to truly have an impact. But getting in that habit of not just saying, “Good job,” but telling them why it was a good job.

– Right.

– Lets them learn from that for the next time.

– And you said sharing is actually a complex issue.

– It is.

– And why?

– So, if you think about the word “share,” sometimes sharing means that we’re using something at the same time; we’re sharing a blanket, we’re sharing the couch to watch the movie. So, we’re both using it. Sometimes we share with the expectation that we’re going to get it back: I’m going to share my doll with you, at some point in time I’m going to get it back. And then there’s other times when we say, “Please share your cookie.” They’re not getting the cookie back. So, you know, for them, it’s really difficult. Also, in young children, they don’t really have that same concept of time. So, “You can have your turn in five minutes” may not mean anything. You may have to pull out a timer so that they can get an idea what five minutes means, because it’s just different for them. They have a different cognitive understanding. They want what they want, and sometimes crying gets it for them. So that’s going to be their automatic fallback.

– And so when that happens, when a child is crying, should you say, “No, you’re crying, you’re not getting this”?

– Right.

– What’s the best way to deal with this?

– So, I think not giving into crying, but maybe not making it sound like a punishment. Like, you’re not getting it because you’re crying; we’re not going to have it because it’s someone else’s turn. But we can play with something different, we can wait for our turn. We can ask, “Could I have a turn?” Because really with these 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, learning to use their words rather than just grabbing something is a great skill for later in life as well.

– Right. Because we said it’s such a complex issue, what is the best way to explain it to a child? Where do you start, and what age can you really start to have that conversation?

– So, really having that conversation during toddlerhood, so that 2 to 3. But it’s going to have the biggest impact at 3 to 5 in preschool when they’re making friends, long-lasting friends, and kind of those more complex social situations, like school, like preschool. But I think having it whenever you can. And, in fact, if Daddy shares his drink, it’s OK to say, “Good job, dad. Thank you for sharing that with me.” Because, again, it just draws their attention, even though you’re not having a conversation, to the fact that we work together. And that makes things go smoother, there’s more fun to be had, and less conflict.

– Should you punish a child who’s not sharing?

– Punishing does not typically work. If anything, it just teaches them that it’s not sharing, it’s that somebody bigger than I am or who has more power has the control over things. And sometimes it actually has the reverse, that they’re going to act out more, because they’re trying to exert that control. I would use the word consequences. So, if you don’t share, we may lose that toy for 10 minutes, or the timer may go on, and when the timer goes off, we can get that toy. Or, we may try to find something different to do. But not really a punishment where you just take it, say, “Because you were not behaving well, you can’t play with this.” Understanding and describing a little bit more how, “This isn’t the right way to act at the moment. You will get your turn, but for now we can do this, but you can’t just necessarily want what you want.”

– What is the natural age or the normal age for children to grow out of this?

– So most children by 3 1/2 or 4, that early preschool age and into kindergarten, are starting to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They can reflect emotions. They start to see that when they take something from somebody, it might make them sad, or that it disrupts play. So, this is really the time I would expect to outgrow it. They’re also building friendships that aren’t just based on who’s close by, but really what can my friend initially do for me; much more still about the me, rather than what I can do for them. But they then learn, if I don’t do for them, they’re not going to do for me, so it becomes a negotiation. And it’s also when they learn to advocate for themselves: that sometimes it is my turn, sometimes it is my toy, and I’ll share, but it’s going to be on my terms.

– When should a parent start to worry? When should a child grow out of this, and what happens if they haven’t?

– Right. So, let’s be honest. Even as adults, sometimes people have easier times sharing than others. But, really, when you get into that later elementary or pre-teen age, you really should see your child starting to advocate for themselves, but being a little more generous and understanding the role in friendships, the role in our social situations, that sharing is appropriate. Plus that it makes them feel better, the give and the receive portion of that. Oftentimes, it’s better to give than to receive something. So, by sharing, we get those positive reinforcements, not only from our parents, but from our friends, from our other adults in our lives, teachers and coaches.

– So, if your child is not in that stage where they should be, how do you approach it?

– Certainly, much like I talked about the early toddlers, it is a conversation. Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit of a different conversation in that it needs to be based on expressing your emotions. Finding out why your child doesn’t want to share. Are they feeling a little bit depressed? Are they anxious are they going to get their item back? Do they really not have a bond with the person that you’re asking them to share? Because expressing our emotions can be also considered sharing, but is an important part of the process. It’s also important to have that conversation, “What do we want to do when they come over? When your friends come over? Are there things we should put away?” Help them plan the event so that they may be able to direct how things are going to go. And, then, again, that same positive reinforcement. “Didn’t we have a great time because everybody worked cooperatively, everybody shared things, there wasn’t the struggle of who got to be first, who got that item, that we were able to rotate that?”

– So, play dates are one thing. What if this is your household, and these are siblings? Is it all the gloves come off when it’s brothers and sisters?

– Yeah, absolutely. So, no, obviously, as I mentioned, you’re not going to allow them to be physical, and I think most houses have house rules, right? You’re not allowed to use a certain word, or you’re not allowed to hit. So, at that point you need to intervene, right? You don’t want things to get out of control. But also allowing them to resolve things on their own. Giving them the time, or even the planning. “You know, we’re making cookies. There’s only one spoon and you both want to stir. How could we solve that?” And oftentimes they will actually come up with a solution rather than you choosing, “It’s your turn first and your turn second.” So, allowing that conversation to flow and building it into it. Not that you’re saying, “How are we going to share this?” But kind of navigating the issue by commentating, “Boy, we have a problem; how can we solve it together?” Again, that cooperation, rather than imposing somebody’s will.

– Right, and do you feel in a household there are many more opportunities to take turns because you’re together 24/7?

– Absolutely, and many more opportunities to practice. Even with games, finding games that are more cooperative, that you’re working together as a team rather than competition, may help that. So, you share these parts with me, and I’ll share these parts with you. Again, demonstrates that so that everybody wins in the end, but that we’ve actually used some skills and learned how to negotiate. Even Monopoly. Even the negotiation of Monopoly sometimes

– Right.

– can be a sharing because if you wanted to be selfish and just win, you’d have all those pieces in front of you. You’d never be willing to share or sell so that people could make their own games more successful.

– Are there conversations parents should be having before a play date?

– Yes. So, I think certainly talking with parents, telling them what the house rules are, can sometimes be helpful. But also finding out what that other child’s strengths or weaknesses are and how that parent may handle a tantrum, so that, again, can be a little bit more consistent. Oftentimes, play dates, especially in young ages, the parents are both there in many cases. So, even sharing some of those parenting best practices can happen during those.

– And again, remind us when a meltdown occurs in a play date.

– Yeah, so.

– What’s the best way to handle that?

– You know, a meltdown is inevitably going to happen, right? Somebody’s not going to get their own way. So, asking them or validating their feelings. “I know you’re frustrated, I know you’re feeling sad, how can we make that better?” If it’s because they’re waiting a turn or things didn’t go out, just honestly being there with them, saying, “I know, waiting your turn is really tough, let’s see what else we can do together while we wait for that turn.” Because even waiting in line at a store, let alone at a play date, can give us an opportunity to talk about when we’re frustrated, when we’re sad, how can we turn that around?

– And should you reward that behavior?

– So, rewarding is really more about positive reinforcement, saying that they did a good job. But I think there are some more rewards, like if you’ve had a successful play date, you’re more likely to have another successful play date. Or, having a treat, earning something. So, especially with those siblings you were talking about, sometimes having them work together to, “If we don’t fight today, we might get to watch a special video. If we can share and work together to accomplish this goal, maybe there’s a special outing.” Again, I think that treat, not necessarily a thing, is a reward, but it’s that we’ve earned it. But we’ve earned it by working together, by doing that sharing process.

– As we close, what do you want to leave parents with?

– You know, understanding that this is normal for development, and that even as adults, we like ownership. We think of it as “my laptop, my car.” And if somebody came to you and said, “You know, your car is just sitting in the driveway, so you’re not using it, I’m going to take it,” you’d object. And for a lot of children, that’s the same way. Just because they’re not playing with that toy, somebody coming and taking it, even if they ask, is going to meet with objection. So practicing and being patient makes us all better sharers. So, demonstrating it, talking about it, and then praising it really will get your toddler, preschooler, and then preteen to be more generous.

– Well, thank you for being generous with your time and coming in and talking with us today. Some really great information; we always appreciate it when you’re here.

– It’s my pleasure to share it, and I hope that it helps.

– Thank you. I’m Tonia Caruso, thank you for joining us. This is UPMC HealthBeat.

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