The Ups and Downs of Toddler Relationships

1- to 2-Year-Olds

Fast and Furious Friends

Before you run off and invite a herd of 18-month-olds over, there's a bit to keep in mind when you're dealing with very young children in social situations. First and foremost, kids this age have a pretty limited sense of empathy.

"Toddlers definitely have some caveman-like qualities," jokes Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam, 2003). One minute a young child could be smiling and handing a truck to a playmate, and the next, clubbing him over the head with his blocks.

Sharing Problems

Their primary focus, according to Dr. Karp, is to experiment with the people and objects around them. Social graces such as sharing or apologizing are not a priority. "Toddlers are not able to look at another child and think, 'Gee, he's really enjoying that toy right now. I'll just wait until he's finished,'" says Murphy.

A more likely outcome? He'll grab the toy from the playmate, "which may result in some hitting or biting," observes Michele Sanderson, program coordinator for the A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School at Ohio State University, which studies the social interaction of toddlers.

Short Attention Spans

To top it all off, your average toddler has the attention span of an impatient housefly. "They have a hard time focusing on any one thing for too long," Sanderson says. Jen Wesley, of New York City, has observed this with her 16-month-old, Tess, on play dates.

"She's not as interested in imaginary play with the other kid as she is in what's she's doing that moment." So it's unreasonable to expect a couple of toddlers to engage in make-believe play or build a block tower together; they can't sit still long enough to do it.

Timing Is Everything

Though it may sound like any meeting between a couple of little kids is destined for disaster, that's not the case, and it doesn't mean that children in this age group are incapable of initiating friendships. But in order to make these interactions a success, you and the playmate's mom are going to have to do a little work.

  • Time it properly. This is your most important move. Both play-date participants need to be fed and rested so the date doesn't get off to a cranky start.
  • Limit participants. When it comes to toddler play, less is more. Very young children tend to do better in groups of two, which reduces the chances that someone will get overstimulated.
  • Have back-up. Since children this age love to imitate one another, try having several copies of favorite toys so they can easily mimic each other and won't have to squabble over who gets the truck. The items needn't be identical, just similar.

"Help, Mom!"

But once you've covered all the bases, that still doesn't mean you and the play date's mom can sit idly by. To make the experience as positive as possible, you and the other parent need to help things move smoothly. For example, you could help your child learn to share by giving him two similar toys and helping him give one to his friend so relinquishing a plaything isn't so painful.

And if squabbles over sharing toys erupt, you need to be there to move the kids on to another activity. Don't be overly concerned if the little social butterflies' interactions flutter to a halt after 30 minutes or so; and if someone melts down and needs to leave, it's fine to cut things short.

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