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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and helping your 3-year-old child grow their collaboration, turn-taking, and healthy friendship skills is a perfect opportunity.
Three-to-four-year-olds are able to understand and say words like “mine,” “yours,” and “ours,” and they are in the process of learning how to share and take-turns. While three-to-four-year-olds’ primary focus is on themselves and thinking of the things around them as theirs, they are also starting to learn to distinguish between what belongs to them and what is for others and learning how to follow social rules so they can be part of a community.1
Yet, there are challenges. Sharing does not come naturally. Sharing means being willing to trust that you will have your needs met, that you can wait while someone else enjoys the toy you want, and you can manage your frustration if the waiting takes longer than you would like. Sensitivity over ownership and sharing is normal in your child’s development. It takes some time to develop these skills and is rarely easy for anyone.
Learning to share “stuff” in social play allows your child to naturally practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility, conflict management, and diversity appreciation. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you to help your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships, learning to collaborate, taking turns, and sharing.
When your three-year-old is unwilling to share their toy with their neighborhood friend, or your four-year-old cries when someone won’t share with them, it upsets their relationships. Your child’s emerging abilities to engage with their peers and become part of a social community are essential to their development.
Today, in the short term, sharing can create
- opportunities for your child to build relationships with others;
- a growing sense of care for others;
- a sense of confidence that your child can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
- a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child share
- develops empathy;
- helps them see others’ perspectives;
- shifts their focus away from self to contributing to the well-being of their community; and
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making.
This five-step process helps you and your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendship skills like turn-taking and sharing. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Three-to-four-year olds’ communication will be limited to five to six word sentences and they will still cry as a central form of communicating with you. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, words, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference as you help your child become successful at sharing. In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are showing them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- are letting them know that you will help them face challenges;
- are growing their ability to advocate for themselves if they feel overwhelmed or if they need more support; and
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels? What are you wondering?”
- For example, if your child is with others who are being asked to share – such as sitting on the sidewalk with neighbors and drawing with colored chalk – help your child notice their own thoughts and reactions and those of the other children. You might even name what expressions and body language you notice. For example, “I noticed you are holding the purple and the green chalk even though you are only using the purple one. The green one is tucked under your leg. Are you worried that someone will take it before you get a chance to use it?” You can also point out how your child seems to feel before and after sharing with a friend. “You were holding your doll tightly this morning and did not want anyone else to hold it. Now, I see your friend is holding the doll, and you are smiling. I think you feel good to see that your friend is happy.”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe all the emotions that occur when learning to share and take turns, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas too.
- “How did you feel when you were keeping the green chalk to yourself?”
- “I noticed some children did not get to use the colors they wanted to use.”
- “I noticed other children offered to share their chalk with each other.”
- “Was there anything that made you feel worried?”
- “How do you feel right now?”
- “How do you think you will feel next time we share the chalk?”
- “Is there anything we can do to remember how good it felt to share with your friends?”
- When reading books, look at the images of people and ask your child what they notice when the characters share with one another. Ask, “How do you think that character is feeling? Has sharing ever made you feel that way?”
Your child will give you lots of cues about whether a request to share feels challenging for them at that moment. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to take on challenges and to be resilient when those experiences become difficult.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s sharing skills. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.2
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry on a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have an emotional vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of emotions.
- 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Help your child to offer an extra book, snack, or doll to a friend. “Let’s go over and see if your friend would like a snack too.” Then, over time, you can help them shift to turn-taking using short turns and visible cues that remind them to keep waiting. “Pick one truck that you would like to let your friend play with for a little while and then you can take turns.”
- When you ask your child to share a toy or something else, they will worry that they will not get it back later or there will not be enough for them to get what they need. Following through on what you say can ease their fears and encourage sharing. “You will get another turn with the ball soon” or “You will get some blocks too”.
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- Point out how characters are sharing in the books you read together.
- Role-play sharing to help your child practice the steps and emotions that go with giving someone else something that they have. For example, have a pretend tea party together, and when your child offers you some tea or moves some lemon wedges from their plate onto yours, they are experiencing making something that was “mine” become “yours.” Take turns pouring the tea from the teapot to allow your child an opportunity to practice waiting.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. “This is my favorite puzzle, and I was worried that if I let her use it, she might lose some of the pieces.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you that I was worried about the puzzle pieces. I am going to tell her how many pieces there are so she can know how many she should have when she returns it.”
- Grow empathy. In addition to developing these essential skills that lead your child to share, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to help them too. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “It’s mine,” you may respond with:
- “Sometimes it can feel really hard to share but then it feels good that someone else got to enjoy the toy too.”
- “Do you remember last time when sharing seemed hard? You took a deep breath and were able to do it.”
- “I wonder if we can do something that will make it easier to share.”
- Help your child notice and name their own cues so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have gotten through a challenging situation. Pointing out the resilience that they demonstrate will help them notice it and know it is there when the next challenge arises.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice and your support, your child will improve over time. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Consider the request to share and make sure that the request to share is reasonable. What is being asked to be shared? Is it something new? Something special? Something that will be used up (e.g. art supplies) and unlikely to be replaced? Sharing is easiest when the item to share feels less valuable to your child and is not consumable. Start sharing with those objects and then work up to sharing more challenging items.
- Think about who your child is being asked to share with. How hard is it for your child to trust the other person to take good care of their toys? If it is someone your child knows and trusts, this should feel like an easier sharing experience. If it is someone they do not know, consider that this may be more challenging for your child.
- Provide opportunities for your child to take on sharing in ways that are more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond what they are comfortable with. If they have already mastered taking 2-minute turns with a timer, try taking longer turns or not using a visual cue such as a timer.
- Provide books, dolls, and other materials at home that give your child a chance to practice sharing through role-playing. Can they give their doll a turn to wear their favorite hat? Can they point out sharing that happens in a picture book?
- Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of sharing that are challenging. Help your child to explore sharing by asking questions and offering support when needed. “What should the doll do if he does not want to share?” “I wonder if the doll could take a breath and ask for help?”
- Initially, practice may require more teaching but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to meet their challenges with skill and persistence, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to use their new sharing skills well and independently. You can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me that you can share your toy with your friend.”
- Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you were uncertain about sharing your new tricycle, but you got through it and had a good time afterall. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is reluctant to share, offer confidence in your child’s ability to speak up for the way they feel. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “If today feels too hard to share your doll, you can say, ‘I do not want to share my doll right now.’”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when asked to share. You can offer reflections like:
- “You seem worried about sharing the ball with your friend.” Offering comfort when facing hard situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would you like to hold your bear while your friend is borrowing the doll?”
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You shared your toys with your friend — I love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your toy with your sister, I will let you have more time to play at the park” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were sharing your toys with your sister. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when sharing is going well. If your child was unwilling or reluctant to share last time you were with this friend but seems more relaxed today, notice the change. “I notice you were more willing today to let James use the toy trucks. He really enjoyed playing with them. That was very kind of you to share with him!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – sharing their most prized possession – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Notice when your child offers something to a friend or waits for their turn. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.