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What It Means When A Toddler Won't Share and 3 Phrases That Will Save You!

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Many parents and childcare professionals have heard a version or two of this popular poem about 2-year-olds.

I'm 2!

If I like it, it's MINE!

If it's in my hands, it's MINE!

If I can take it from you, it's MINE!

If I had it before, it's MINE!

This is so true, but how does it help you deal with the frustration and embarrassment of the situation when you're in charge of the child who says it?

For the most part, it doesn't. Except that it lets us know we're not alone and our child is probably acting normally.

Like me, you've probably found yourself saying some of the same phrases this young woman in pink is saying. And like me, you've probably not had too much luck with them!

But, there's another side to the coin that many seasoned childcare providers talk about.

I didn't really understand why young children had such a hard time sharing until I learned the following developmental principle.

The reason they want the toy isn't because they're greedy, selfish, impatient, or narcissistic.

They want the toy because they want to learn about it.

PLAY! is a child's best method of learning. A child's desire to play and learn is usually quite strong, especially for a child that is super smart and/or physically inquisitive.

So why then didn't they want the same toy a minute ago when it was available? Is it because they're greedy and they don't want the other child to have it?

Not really. It's just that seeing a toy in action and being used makes it infinitely more interesting. Our eyes and our brains are wired to detect and pay attention to movement. Just as they're wired to learn.

Now I see why toy snatching is such a never-ending problem in early care and education. It's connected to their learning and their drive to learn is insatiable.

That's wonderful news but it still doesn't tell us what to do in the moment or what to do to prevent it from happening. So here's my best idea for prevention, followed by my best 3 phrases for staying calm and dealing with the issue like a pro.


Use laptime to teach emotions and the words associated with them.

Laptime is time spent looking at pictures, connecting, and talking about feelings. It's a great way to teach the language of emotions. Plus it's fun and rewarding for all involved.

Click on the word laptime to learn more about this simple strategy that teaches so much.

When talking with very young children about feelings it's important to start with their feelings before moving on to your feelings and then the feeling of others.


All Feelings Are OK, All Actions (and Words) Are Not!

Now for the phrases

It looks like you're having a problem. I'll help you take turns. I'll hold the toy until we can figure out what to do.

This might seem counterintuitive but forget about sharing itself for a while. It's rare for toddlers to actually share. Instead, you can teach them to take turns. It takes patience and maybe a timer. While you're at it, forget about the blame involved, too. It doesn't usually help to ask who had it first.

Blame doesn't solve problems. Plus it can create more. Don't worry if they cry, whine, or jump up and down while waiting. Just make sure you use short enough turns for them to catch on.

She's/He's/They're using it!

It seems obvious, but someone has to say it. No blame, no shame, just the facts. Then you can teach a better way to get a turn such as asking or waiting.

Bernie is your friend.

Show them what a friend is by talking about it when they're not having a problem. Toddler teachers play up the friendship aspect of learning. They also teach problem-solving. They notice what works well for toddlers in play and supply words to encourage more of it.

Howie is helping.

Mary found the spatula!

Missy and George are playing together with the ball.

reflection: Think about what you will say the next time you encounter conflict. Is it any different when you focus on problem-solving without blame?

Early Childhood Rocks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the world through early childhood education

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI

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