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Sharing takes understanding

A few weeks ago, I was visiting my in-laws who were taking care of my young nephews, ages 3½ and 20 months. Let’s call them Tom and Jerry.

The family was in the living room and the boys each had a set of toys, mostly cars and trucks that they were playing with. Tom went over to his younger brother and picked up a toy truck that the toddler wasn’t playing with. Jerry instantly grabbed it back. It resulted in a tug of war and the older boy crying.

The adults started telling Jerry that he needed to share with Tom. I told them I had recently read a news article talking about how kids aren’t able to understand the concept of sharing until they are about 3 or 4 years old. The adults just stared at me like I was crazy.

I tried explaining that kids that young haven’t developed theory of mind, which is the ability to tell that what you want is sometimes different than what others wants. For example, it is hard for Jerry to realize that his older brother would think any differently than the Jerry’s perspective of wanting to have all the toys surrounding him even if he isn’t playing with them.

“Theory of mind is important for developing empathy, making friends and even doing well academically,” said Sarah Lytle, of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, who was quoted in the article I read.

So what can parents do?

  • Help young kids develop perspective by talking them through different scenarios. This helps them build a picture in their mind that their way is not the only way.
  • Read books with familiar experiences that the child has had, for example, going to the doctor and talk about how the experiences were similar or different.

Luckily, my mom-in-law, the veteran nana that she is, did something similar in talking with the boys about different scenarios. And one boy dried his tears and they continued playing. For about ten minutes, until the next battle.

Ofelia Gonzalez is the public information officer at First Things First. You can reach her at

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