Your toddler’s growing understanding of ownership and sharing

If sharing has an arch-enemy, it’s the word “mine” right? And since sharing nicely is the gold standard when it comes to toddler behavior, your toddler’s growing understanding of ownership might seem like they’ll get in the way of Baby’s early adventures in sharing. In reality, though, studies have shown that young children share more, and more willingly, once they have a strong understanding of property and ownership. The “mine” phase may not be much fun to bring with you and Baby on playdates, but it’s an important step in the direction of future sharing.

Sharing versus turn-taking

For starters, a lot of the “sharing” young toddlers do isn’t really what parents mean when they encourage their children to share. The idea isn’t for your toddler just to hand things over on command, just because another child is louder, after all. The idea is that, out of the kindness of their heart, Baby will offer to share with their playmates because they want to, and because it’s the nice thing to do. Unfortunately, the second kind of sharing isn’t something that young toddlers’ brains are quite set up for yet, so parents and caregivers who are committed to teaching sharing early usually end up with the first – sharing on-demand.

One thing children this age can learn, which can help them when they do start to share altruistically, is turn-taking. Turn-taking teaches impulse-control and delayed gratification, patience, and helps to foster a clearer understanding of the idea of ownership, which sharing is tied to.

Why does an understanding of ownership lead to better sharing?

When children are still learning about what ownership means, plenty of things about sharing can be confusing. If your little one shares their ball with a friend, they will probably get it back good as new in just a few minutes. If they share their cookies, though, they just end up with half as many cookies. Toys they bring to the park are theirs to make decisions about, but the toys they play with every day at daycare follow different rules. Sharing is a confusing concept, and knowing a little bit more about how ownership works can help clear up a lot of Baby’s questions and concerns.

Understanding ownership isn’t the only cognitive skill that will eventually help get Baby sharing like a champ. An understanding of time (“You’ll get it back in just a few minutes, okay?”) and an understanding of other people’s needs and emotions also both help get toddlers sharing spontaneously and generously. These are all skills that build over time, and that are more mature by the time toddlers and young children more fully understand ownership.

When do children learn about ownership?

While toddlers tend to take a big leap forward in their understanding of property and ownership around 3 years old, but their understanding keeps growing after that, and isn’t usually fully formed until around age 5.

  • Peter R. Blake, Paul L. Harris. “Children’s understanding of ownership transfers.” Cognitive Development. 24: 133-145. Web. 2009.
  • Celia A. Brownell, et al. “Mine or Yours? Development of Sharing in Toddlers in Relation to Ownership Understanding.” Child Development. 84(3): 906-920. Web. May 2013.
  • Ingrid Wickelgren. “Toddlers Stand Up for Property Rights.” Scientific American. Scientific American, A Division of Nature America, November 20 2011. Web.

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