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Sharing is caring, or is it?

I see it all the time observing caregivers with young humans, inevitably there is a material that more than one young human wants. The young human using the material grips the material tightly and the caregiver deems it is “time” for the other young human to use the material. “Be nice and share your toys.” Yet the original user’s grip gets tighter and tighter, “give them the _____. You’ve had it a long time.” However, they aren’t done using the material so why should they have to give it up. The young human has a look of confusion upon his face. The play scenario has been halted and his prized possession in play is being threatened. I’d challenge you to look at it from this perspective, from that of the young human. They were using something, and they are being forced to give it up before they are done. Their play is disrupted, and they learn that ‘sharing’ feels terrible. They didn’t want to ‘share’ and now that horrible feeling is one they will associate with ‘sharing.’ And think of the young human ‘taking’ the item. What are we showing them? That everything they desire to play with is theirs instantly? That just because they see something that they want they can take it, even if someone else is using it? That line of thinking can become very dangerous, as growing humans become adults. I personally think we have enough adults in this world who think they are entitled to take/use anything (or anyone) that they want.

But ‘we need to prepare young humans for the real world, and sharing is caring,’ right? ‘Young humans need to learn to share,’ right? However, I would like to challenge those perspectives and argue: Do young humans really need to ‘share’?In the adult world if you are using something, let’s say your car, and another person walks by and wants it do you just give it to them? NO WAY! That’s ‘our car,’ a prized possession that we’ve ‘worked so hard for’ right? Young humans view all their materials like prized possessions, integral to their play scenario. A car is taking that example to the extreme, but what about something we would give to someone else? For example, let’s say you are using a pen to sign your name on a receipt at a store, and as you were about to start writing someone walks up to you and demands the pen because it’s their turn. You would first finish signing your name and then you might give them the pen. This is because as adults when we are using something we finish before giving it to someone else to use. We expect to wait our turn and for others to wait their turn. So, does it really make sense to teach or force our young humans to give something up before they are done using it?

But if we don’t force them to share, they will never choose to, right? Well, Chernyak and Kushnir (2013) found that more preschoolers (3-5 years of age) chose to share a majority of stickers to a ‘sad’ stuffed animal (“other-prioritizing”) than to themselves (“self-prioritizing”). Further, they found that young humans were more likely to share the stickers when they had a choice to or not. When the choice to share stickers was taken away (“You have to give this sticker to [stuffed animal] so that he feels better”) they observed less sharing, so “having a choice influenced [young human’s] subsequent sharing” (Chernyak & Kushnir, 2013, p. 1974). Wu, Zhang, Guo and Gros-Louis (2017) found that young humans (age 3-5 years old) sharing on their own without force or obligation were happier when sharing (giving stickers to another as compared to keeping stickers for themselves), however, this was not found to be true when sharing was mandatory. “These findings support the argument that positive mood is associated with autonomous sharing, but not with obligated sharing” (Wu, Zhang, Guo & Gros-Louis, 2017, p. 6). Further, Aknin, Hamlin, and Dunn (2012) found the same happiness when sharing in young humans under the age of two; young humans were happier sharing than receiving the item themselves. So, if you are worried about your young human not sharing if they aren’t forced to, or becoming selfish if they aren’t forced to share, it seems like the research doesn’t support those hypotheses. Young humans do things that make them happy, and autonomous sharing seems to be something that makes them happy.

In the end, it’s both important to show young humans that their wants are important (letting them finish with materials rather than force sharing) and that they are not entitled to anything (waiting for others to be done before we can use a material). So, what can caregivers do? Encourage, but not force, turn-taking rather than forced sharing by supporting young humans in using materials until they are all done rather than interrupting their play. Some things you can do to encourage autonomous turn-taking:

  1. Encourage your young human to take control of the situation themselves helping them to set boundaries. Provide them with language to support this: “you can have it when I’m done” or “I’m using the ___ , when I’m done I’ll give it to you.” Or, if they are the one waiting, “when you are done with the ___ I would like to use it” or “can you bring me the ____ when you are done?”

  2. Encourage patience; when a young human wants something that someone else is using, point out that they are still using the material and make a plan to engage with another material while waiting for the other material. For example, a young human is climbing on a structure and someone else wants to climb, “It looks like ____ is climbing, what can we do until they are done?” (read a book, build a structure or climb on another structure). Help them find something else and join in that play with them.

  3. Empathize with them; let them know that you know how they are feeling and support them through their emotions. Remind them it’s okay to be sad/angry/frustrated/disappointed. You can help them identify their emotions, express them appropriately and practice coping mechanisms. “You really want that car, ______ is using it, you seem frustrated. I get frustrated too”, “You seem sad that ____ is using the car, when I’m sad I like to _____, I wonder what we can do while we wait?”, or “You seem angry, waiting is hard work, you really want that car right now, but _____ is using it.” However, emotions should not be used to guilt the original user into ending their turn early i.e. ‘look at Johnny, he’s so sad that you won’t give him the ____’ (read: the original user’s plans and use of the material are just as important as your young human’s want and plan for the toy, it’s not fair to make them feel bad for using a material someone else happens to want).

  4. Respect both short and long turns (and we all know some turns are REALLY LONG). Long turns can leave the young human wanting the material frustrated and/or upset. However, turn length is a choice too. Long turns are not intended to be ‘selfish,’ ‘unkind’ or ‘hogging’ the toys., and should be just as respected as short ones, because they too have a purpose. Maybe the young human is taking their time practicing a new skill, or maybe they don’t feel comfortable or in control (i.e. worried they might lose the toy ‘for good,’ worried someone else might abuse the toy, or as a test to see if the caregiver really means that they can have it as long as they want/need until they are done using it.).

  5. Consistency and follow through are key. Show your young human that no matter the place, time, company or space the same expectations on turn taking exist. Further, don’t give up under pressure (from other adults wanting your young human to ‘share’ or your own personal guilt that your young human might be a ‘toy hog’) by reinforcing your stance, repeat to your young human, ‘you can use the _____ until you are done’ or support your young human to the other person wanting the toy, ‘____ is using the ____, you can have it when she/he/they are done.’ To reinforce a plan to wait until someone else is done you can create a next-in-line list to show a tangible example of your expectations.

  6. Use supportive language surrounding autonomous turn taking:

  • You can play with the _____ until you are finished.

  • Checking in with your young human, “Are you done using the ___?” then supporting them to others, “____ says he/she/they is not done using the ___ yet.”

  • You didn’t seem to like it when he/she/they grabbed your truck, you can say ‘stop’ or ‘I’m still using the truck, you can have it when I’m done’

  • When he/she/they is all done, then you can use it.

  • I see he/she/they still has the purse. He/she/they are still using it.

  • I won’t let you take the block out of his/her/their hands, he/she/they are using the block, what can we do while we wait?

  • He/she/they want to use the ball when you are done, will you tell him/her/them when you are all done?

  • I noticed you are not using the ball anymore, Go find ____. Remember she/he/they are waiting for a turn.

  • Yes, _____ is using the truck for a long time, he/she/they must really enjoy using the truck. When it’s your turn, you can use it for as long as you want too.

  • Let’s make a turn-taking list, first is ____ he/she/they are using the puzzle right now. Then let’s write your name, look you are next after ____ your name is next in line.

  • The slide is for everyone to use, but it looks like ____ is sliding down now, we can wait until they are at the bottom.

The more we provide supportive experiences for young humans to practice turn-taking on their own timeline (read: without being forced) the more they are likely to repeat and continue those pro-social behaviors. Self-perception theory asserts that humans are more likely to behave similarly to how they have behaved in the past because of a desire to be consistent; “people learn about their own preferences from observing their past actions” (Chernyak & Kushnir, 2013, p. 1975). In this example, it is the thought process “I shared, so I must like to share” (Chernyak & Kushnir, 2013, p. 1977) thus increasing the likelihood they will share in the future. So, set expectations that support your young human in practicing autonomous turn-taking by respecting them and protecting their desires and play without forcing it to end through forced ‘sharing’ of materials.


Aknin, L. B., Hamlin, J. K. & Dunn, E. W. (2012). Giving leads to happiness in young children. PLoS ONE. 7(6).

Chernyak, N. & Kushnir, T. (2013). Giving preschoolers choice increases sharing behavior. Psychological, 24(10), 1971-1979.

Wu, Z., Zhang, Z., Guo, R., & Gros-Louis, J. (2017). Motivation counts: Autonomous but not obligated sharing promotes happiness in preschoolers. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:867.

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