Learning to Share

Do playdates dissolve into nasty battles over every toy in the room? Then it's time for you to teach your child this important life lesson.

During a recent business trip to Burlington, Vermont, I stole some time to visit an old friend and her family. While Mary Ann nursed baby Jack, 2-year-old Gracie led me to the playroom, where she dramatically overturned a basket of toys. I lifted a doll from the pile and asked about it. "Mine," Gracie replied, and she gently removed it from my hand. I picked up a ball. "Mine," she repeated, taking it. A block, a book, a car -- mine, mine, mine.

Next to "no," is there any other word more popular with 2- and 3-year-olds? Not only do they call their own stuff "mine," they see everything else as theirs too! "Gracie can be sitting in a sea of toys, but if I pick up one and give it to Jack, she wants it," Mary Ann sighs. "Why is it so hard for her to share?"

It's difficult because at 2 and 3 children aren't aware that others have their own feelings, needs, and wants, explains Cathryn Tobin, M.D., author of The Parent's Problem Solver. Kids this age are totally self-centered.

But that doesn't mean you can't help your child learn about sharing. In fact, it's up to you to help transform sharing from a meaningless concept into an everyday ethic. Just don't expect overnight results. Generosity and empathy -- the foundation of sharing -- are qualities that emerge over time, after repeated reinforcement, Dr. Tobin says. Here's how to speed the process along.

Homespun Values

Kids learn best by example, so make sharing a regular part of family life. Tell your child that in your house, everyone shares the chores, then assign him a few tasks. Even a 2-year-old can place napkins on the table or pitch a can into the recycling bin. During meals, "share the limelight," letting each person speak uninterrupted. At snacktime, offer a bite from your plate, explaining, "Mommy is sharing her apple with Joshua." The next time, ask, "Will Joshua share his apple with Mommy?" Praise him if he does. It's also important to show your child that you care about others, says Bobbi Conner, author of Everyday Opportunities for Extraordinary Parenting. Let him help you make soup for a sick friend, for example -- he'll learn that when someone has a problem, there are things he can do to help.

Share Tactics

No matter what you do, there will be times when your little one's possessiveness gets the better of her. Learn how to minimize these episodes and get past them quickly.

Do prep work before playdates.

If you'll be the host, help your child stash her favorite toy -- the one she genuinely couldn't bear to let another kid touch -- in a safe place. Then explain that the rest of her playthings are for everyone to enjoy. When you go to someone else's house, chat beforehand about what to expect, recalling highlights from her last successful playdate ("Remember when you and Peter had fun playing ball together?").

Compliment kind behavior to reinforce it.

Say, for example, "You're doing a nice job of playing with Philip and the blocks."

Don't rush to referee.

If your little one takes a toy from his friend, try not to overreact -- see how the children handle it. They'll sometimes continue playing without a fuss.

Break up any brawls.

If your child's grabbiness makes her friend cry, take action. Say, "That's not nice. Kate is playing with that," then help her find another activity.

Take a stronger stand when he bites or hits to get a toy.

Remove him from the action and say, "We don't hit. That hurts!" But don't force him to say he's sorry. When all eyes are on him, your child may be too embarrassed to comply. Instead, walk him over to his friend and apologize on his behalf.

Tailor your technique.

Experiment with various strategies to see what works best for your child. If Gillian Norrie's 2-year-old triplets, Noah, Frasier, and Gabriel, fight over a plaything, "I give the toy a time-out for a few minutes," the suburban Atlanta mother says.

Even if your child is a toy miser on playdates, she may be better under different circumstances. The Norrie boys' teacher has praised their willingness to share. "I couldn't believe it," Norrie says, laughing. "I guess my husband and I taught them more than I thought."

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the August 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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