Teaching this valuable skill will ease playtime tension.

Q. My 18-month-old son and I go to a playgroup once a week. Last week, he grabbed a car out of his friend's hands. His friend started to cry, and when I made my son give the car back, he started to cry. It was a mess. How can you get little kids to share?

A. Just the other day I had a similar experience -- not with toddlers, but with my own 10- and 12-year-olds! Obviously, learning to share is a process that can start now but takes a very long time to master. So have no fear -- the incident you describe is quite typical. In fact, it's what we expect at this age.

Toddlers are determined beings who know what they want and are dead set on getting it. Unfortunately, what they don't yet have are the words to express their strong feelings, so they communicate through actions. Children this age are also self-centered, meaning they don't yet have the capacity to put themselves in other people's shoes. This is why it's hard for them to share. They only know what they feel, not what others feel. They're thinking, "I want that car, and I want it now!"

A final complicating factor is that 18-month-olds don't yet have the impulse control to stop themselves from doing something they want to do, even if they have been corrected countless times. For all of these reasons, most children can't really share until they're 2 1/2 to 3.

However, you certainly shouldn't wait until your child is 2 to help him learn to share. When you're playing together, show him how to take turns: He adds a block, then you add one. At cleanup time, take turns putting the toys back on the shelf. At bedtime, switch off who gets to flip the pages. Through these interactions, your son will experience sharing as part of a positive, loving relationship, which sets the stage for it in other relationships.

Here are some things you can do to help your son and his friends share at playgroup:

  • Before a friend comes over, let your child choose and put away the things that are special and too hard to share.
  • Provide several of the same kinds of toys so there's enough for everyone.
  • Compliment the children when they're playing cooperatively -- "I like how you gave Ellie the ball she wanted."
  • Join their play and be their guide. Let them know you understand how hard it is to share. Tell them that grabbing is not okay, and offer alternatives such as helping them choose another toy while they wait their turn.
  • Keep the turns short and use a timer to help them know when their turn will come. (Often kids become so amused by the idea of the timer that they forget about the fight over the toy.)
  • As your child grows, let him help problem-solve; when he and a friend are having trouble sharing, ask for their ideas on a fair resolution.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

American Baby