Share and share alike

Help your preschooler along with these social development tips.

Learning Stages

By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

Beginning approximately around the age of four, children begin to develop the capacity for empathy. Prior to that, sweeties like my son, who will happily turn over a toy if you prompt him by saying it is another child's turn, are play-acting rather than showing genuine empathy. Sharing before four is simply another game that some children are more willing to play than others.

But just as children enter the pre-K years, they develop what we call pro-social behavior. Essentially, children are developmentally able to understand what another person is feeling and to care about the feelings of least some of the time.

So, if your toddler isn't that keen on being a team player, the good news is that he still has a little while before he is truly developmentally able to show compassion. You can help matters along by showing your child the importance of considering others' feelings.

  1. Model the behavior: When you think of others first, you are setting an example your children will follow. If possible, look for volunteer opportunities in the community where you can bring along your children or possibly even include them.
  2. Encourage interaction across age groups: Studies have shown that mixed-age groupings have benefits for older and younger children. The older children tend to be less aggressive around the younger children and younger children mimic the more sophisticated play of the older children.
  3. Ask children to consider how they would feel: When your child hurts another child's feelings (code for yanking away a toy or smacking another child on the head), ask your child to consider how she would feel in the same situation. Do not expect she'll understand the importance of this revelation right away. Repetition is the key. Once she begins to connect how she would feel with how the other child feels, she can begin to make amends and eventually think before she acts.
  4. Role-play situations: Help children practice difficult situations in advance. Younger children may respond well to using dolls to play act out typical scenarios. Give your children ideas about how to react and you will find them using these phrases to respond.

Do not despair if your toddler is not ready yet to share and show consideration. Some children are less willing to play along with expected behaviors than others, but they will still develop pro-social skills with time and patience.