Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sharing Among Preverbal Toddlers

There is a joke about toddlers that goes something like this: "If it's in my hand, it's mine. If it's in your hand and I want it, it's mine." That's a rather cynical and narrow-minded view of toddler mentally that I totally disagree with. A more accurate and positive view begins with the recognition that toddlers are curious and that they learn about the world through hands-on interaction. They don't really understand ownership. They are able to take turns if you step back and allow them to do so on their own.

Preverbal toddlers can only use toddler body language to ask permission.  A preverbal child can't ask another child if she can have a turn with the toy in his hand. It is absurd that adults hold them to this standard. Instead of asking, a preverbal child will approach the other child, grasp the object, and attempt to take it into her own hands. If it comes away easily without tears or fussing on behalf of the initial holder, then permission has been granted by the holder, nonverbally.  If the initial holder of the object grasps more firmly, cries, or wails, then he was clearly not done having a turn with it. The second child will either have to wait her turn or face the reality that her actions caused another child to cry.

Toddlers are very sensitive to the pains of others, and they can learn to be empathetic if we allow them the chance to practice it. Once an adult steps in, however, neither child is given the opportunity to learn about sharing. The initial holder doesn't get the chance to assert himself or to share. The other interested toddler doesn't get to learn how ask for a turn. She doesn't learn that her actions affect others, she only learns what happens to her (verbal scolding, time-out, or having the object taken away by an adult). Either way, adult interference seems to interfere with the very lesson we are trying to teach.

Putting this philosophy into practice actually works. I have been doing this with a friend of mine who shares my confidence in a child's ability to learn about sharing. Our preverbal toddler boys are close in age, and when they interact, we don't interfere. We are there to provide comfort to hurt egos or step in if either one of them is in danger. These little boys pass toys back and forth. They take toys away from each other, non-aggressively, and without incident. Occasionally, one of them gets upset or there is a moment of tug-o-war. But it passes quickly. Peaceful interactions resume as before. They resolve it. By themselves.


  1. Interesting perspective! My concern is when a toy is taken from another and they are clearly upset but the aggressor shows no empathy or continues to wrestle for the toy despite any resistance. This has happened to my son who is passive by nature and becomes upset when another pre-verbal child takes his toy before he is finished with it. It bothers me and I usually intervene but I want to teach them differently. Any ideas?

  2. @Wolfmother: Great point! When I first learned about this approach to sharing, I had the same concerns as you. I have many future posts in mind to cover sharing in depth.

    I'm still trying to figure it out how to put my ideas into practice. I think a lot depends on each child's age, temperament, and developmental stage. When my son loses a toy to another child, I validate his experience and offer him comfort: "Johnny took the toy from you and I see that you are upset. Would you like a hug?". I also say things like: "Johnny is taking a turn right now. Maybe he will let you have a turn when he's done", then I try to get my son interested in another toy. I let "Johnny" hear what I say, not to shame him, but to let him now the effect of his actions. I would certainly step in if hitting was involved.

    When my son is the "taker", I say similar things ("You took the toy from Johnny and now he is crying. Do you want to let Johnny have a turn?"). Then I take a deep breath and wait. And wait. After awhile, he gives the toy to Johnny or another kid. I point out how happy the other child is by his actions.

    I think this approach will help my son focus on how it FEELS to share and take turns, instead of focusing on what is expected of him by me or other adults. He is learning empathy. So far, it's working well for us. Obviously, there are situations when adult intervention is necessary (like hitting).

    I should have inserted these links in this post, but I was still learning my way around Blogger at the time. You might find these useful: