Trading toys can be a great way for your child to develop social skills. But sometimes the trades can hit some snags. Help your kid master the rules of swapping so he comes away with satisfying exchanges.
Children playing with toys
Credit: Buff Strickland

When my kindergartner's initial nervousness about riding the school bus was suddenly and mysteriously replaced with rampant enthusiasm, I was thrilled. As it turned out, Ben's newfound excitement was due to the fact that he and his bus mates had begun trading little things like stickers, Pokémon cards, Matchbox cars, and other small toys on the way to and from school. I saw no harm in it -- until the day my boy came home with a cell phone his buddy had "borrowed" from his mom.

Experts say swapping can be not only fun but also educational for school-age kids, who are just beginning to become more independent. "Trading with peers is a terrific opportunity for your child to practice social skills like negotiation," says Beth Roberts, director of the Social Enrichment Center in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. "Plus, it fosters his sensitivity to others and the ability to fend for himself." These tips will help your kid learn to trade responsibly.

Negotiation Tactics

Kids this age are becoming savvier about the concept of bargaining. "They are highly motivated to get what they want and are beginning to understand the concept of compromise," says Ellen Coopersmith, a kindergarten teacher at the Swarthmore-Rutledge School, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. However, the trading process is also influenced by a kid's personality. If left to her own devices, an assertive child will often take advantage of a kid who is simply trying to please. Through the process of playful negotiation, a self-assured child might realize she has to "give in" and make a concession to get the item she likes, while a passive kid could gain the confidence to "speak up" and turn down an unappealing offer. Role-playing both positive and negative exchanges can prepare your child for these -- and other -- real-life scenarios.

It's helpful to understand why your child is interested in trading. Chances are, she's seen kids at school swapping and it looks like fun, or she's enticed by the idea of getting something new. In some cases, her motivation might be more complex: She wants to fit in, make a new friend, or strengthen an existing friendship. If you sense your kid is trading in order to win someone over, offer her an alternative. You could say something like, "Trading sounds like fun, but if you want to get to know Sophia better, let's ask her over for a playdate instead."

Ready to Deal

Even if you're comfortable with your child trading trinkets with his friends, you shouldn't buy items specifically for swapping. Instead, the two of you could fill a small box with old toys and knickknacks he is ready to offer in exchange for something "new." Then, ask him to rate the value of the items in the box. Kids this age might use hand gestures -- from "a little" to "a lot" -- to show how much an item is worth to them. "It might reflect monetary value, but also sentimental or 'coolness' value," says Jane Mackay, a licensed clinical psychologist in Media, Pennsylvania, who works with children. Understanding that an action figure costs more than a Rainbow Loom bracelet or a shooter marble will help him distinguish a fair trade from an uneven one. Likewise, emotional attachment will save him from impulsively offering up his lucky shark tooth in exchange for a popular baseball card he wants. However, even with all your coaching, your kid could come home with a friend's item that is unacceptable to you for whatever reason. If this happens, clearly explain to your child why the item needs to be returned, contact the other parent, and make the swap short and sweet.

Emotional Exchanges

It's often a struggle for kids this age to part with their things. "Even if your child wants to trade, she may worry about making a mistake and giving away an item that she will miss dearly later, despite the fact that she's getting something of value in return," says Mackay. It's worth pointing out that we all second-guess ourselves at times and that her goal should be to aim for a "win-win" solution. That means not settling for a trade she doesn't feel satisfied with and suggesting that she ask the other child if she is happy with the trade too -- so they both feel like winners, instead of losers. It's also important to remind your child that once a trade has been completed, there are no "givebacks." She must be ready and willing to say goodbye to the item forever. If she comes away from a swap feeling disappointed about the value of the item she received, Mackay suggests encouraging her to move on with positive thoughts, such as, "I made the best decision at the time," or "I learned from that mistake!" That way, your child will still feel positive about the trading process -- and make smarter choices next time.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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