What Concepts About Sharing Can My Toddler Understand?

Here's a question I got from a mom recently, on the heels of the Christmas season:
Our older son (age 4) will be playing with a toy, and his younger sibling (17 months) becomes interested and tries to play with it at the same time, or sometimes just takes it. Older brother starts to whine, since we've taught him not to take something out of someone else's hands. What concepts are they old enough to understand?
Sometimes I try to coach the older boy through possible solutions (play with it where his brother can't reach it, get him interested in another toy, or share the toy), but others I just step in and take it back from one and return it to the other. Sometimes if I get one interested in another toy, the other boy ends up coming over and wanting to play with that toy. I figure I need a consistent approach, but haven't settled on what it is.

The Guilty Parties

Ah, yes. Sibling squabbles. Brotherly rivalry. This case is not the first, and won't be the last.>

Obviously, there are two separate people we are dealing with here. We have to consider each child separately, and engage their individual hearts and souls. One way I have been lazy as a parent in the past (and I still err in this way) is by treating my kids as the same.

(And, of course, we should also consider the parents' hearts, since parenting is not just about kids. But it's discomforting to think that our kids' issues might be our fault, so we'll leave the parents out of it for now.)

I think that this mom is using some good strategies. Usually removal of one of the boys from the situation, and distracting them with someone else, can avoid or solve many of the problems.

But in both cases (and when it comes in our own hearts), we have to remember to look beyond the behavior, and to address the heart issue. Yes, we'll deal with the behavior, but we also have to try to discern the motivations of the heart.

Leading Your Preschooler

For the older child, I think for him the heart issue is not about being fair, but about him being will to put aside his own desires for the sake of loving his brother. He may be a little on the younger side to fully grasp this, but I think it's important for him to begin to understand (as best he can) the concepts of idolatry and worship.

When he whines about his brother taking his toy, he is worshiping himself, and putting his own desires ahead of his brothers', who was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When he cares about a toy more than his brother, that is sin.

That's a heavy concept, but I think you can incorporate terms like "love," "sin," "worship," etc., in this context. You are teaching him the gospel -- helping him understand that his heart is sinful, and that's why Jesus had to die on the Cross.

Engaging Your Toddler 

The younger child may be a little tougher in some aspects, but you are right that it's so important to be consistent. At his age, it's more of a basic concept of "be kind" than it is trying to help him understand his heart. He may need removal from the situation if he is repeatedly not being kind. And yes, he will often whine.

In both cases, I think it's important to use regular language (kindness, sin, worship, etc). Even if they don't understand it, it lays a groundwork for future conversations about the gospel.

And that's what you as a parent have to understand about this matter. This is not a one-time issue or conversation. This is a multi-year process of discipling your child.

That's tough for me; I'd rather just have one conversation lecture, but I think that's how God is working on my heart. He shows me how weak and unwise I am as a parent, to remind me how much I need a Savior.

What counsel would you give this parent?

(If you have any parenting-related questions, please email me.)

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**image courtesy of criscris1 via sxc.hu


  1. This also happens to my children... I also tried those kind of discipline and I also learned a lot from your blog. But what I usually do is that, I confiscate the object (toy,food) that they both wanted... and always told them that if you will not learn how to share things none of will have it...Hope this would help...thanks also for sharing this blog.

    bible teaching

    1. That can be a good technique. But we have to make sure to get to the heart, and deal with the core issue of sin & self-idolatry.