Understanding Children's Ability to Share: A Developmental Milestone

Published on 2 July 2024 at 21:20

Sharing is often seen as a crucial social skill, yet it's important to understand that children's ability to share is a developmental milestone that emerges with time and growth. Just as a child cannot walk before their muscles are strong enough, they cannot grasp the concept of sharing until they are socially and emotionally ready. Let's explore the journey of learning to share, supported by research and expert insights.

Developmental Milestones and Sharing

Developmental milestones are key indicators of a child's growth and abilities at various stages. When we think of milestones, we often picture a baby's first steps or a toddler mastering potty training. However, learning to share is a significant social milestone that is often overlooked.

According to Healthy Families British Columbia (HFBC), the ability to take turns and share is considered a social milestone that develops over time. Toddlers, especially those under three years old, are naturally inclined to protect their possessions and may react strongly when asked to share. This behavior is normal and indicative of their developmental stage.

The Age of Empathy and Sharing

Research indicates that children under the age of three cannot fully understand the concept of sharing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that sharing skills typically begin to emerge around 3.5 to 5 years of age. Before this age, toddlers are still developing their independence and language skills, which are essential for understanding and practicing sharing.

Language Development and Sharing

Toddlers between 18 to 24 months start using two to three-word sentences, marking a significant milestone in language development (HFBC, 2017). However, their limited language skills can create barriers when it comes to sharing. Imagine a two-year-old with a beloved new toy. If another child wants the toy, the toddler may not have the words to negotiate or explain their feelings, leading to conflicts.

Independence and Empathy

Toddlers are also in a phase where they are learning to make their own choices and assert their independence. According to Lindert (2012), this can make sharing particularly challenging because toddlers view the world from their perspective and may not understand that others have different desires. This lack of empathy means they cannot easily put themselves in another child's shoes.

The Importance of Not Forcing Sharing

Forcing a child to share before they are developmentally ready can be counterproductive. It can create confusion and frustration, similar to attempting to toilet train a child who is not ready. Instead, parents can support their children by fostering an environment that gradually introduces the concept of sharing.

Strategies to Support Sharing

  1. Intervene with Calmness: When a child shows aggression over a toy, calmly explain that such behavior is not acceptable. This helps set boundaries while respecting the child's feelings.

  2. Encourage Parallel Play: Allow children to play alongside each other without direct interaction. This type of play helps them become comfortable in each other's presence without the pressure to share.

  3. Promote Non-Sharing Activities: Engage children in activities that do not require sharing, such as dancing or playing hide-and-seek. This builds social bonds without the stress of sharing.

  4. Allow Long Turns: Understand that toddlers need time with their toys. Allow them to have long turns and redirect other children to different activities until the toy is available.

Respecting Children's Rights to Their Belongings

It's essential to recognize that children also have the right to their belongings. Not everything needs to be shared. This respect for their possessions helps build a sense of security and trust. Encouraging children to have special toys that they do not have to share can help them feel more in control and less threatened.

Understanding that sharing is a developmental milestone can help parents and caregivers approach this skill with patience and empathy. By recognizing the stages of language development, independence, and empathy, we can support children in a way that respects their growth and individuality. Remember, just like walking and talking, sharing is a skill that children will master in their own time.


  1. Healthy Families British Columbia (HFBC). (2017). "Child Development: Why Toddlers Don't Share." Retrieved from HFBC website.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (n.d.). "Learning to Share." Retrieved from AAP website.

  3. Lindert, K. (2012). "Why Toddlers Can’t Share." Retrieved from Zero to Three

  4. MacLaughlin, S. (2017). "Empathy and the Developing Child." Retrieved from Psychology Today

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