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:
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).