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?"
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.
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 her 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 Claire." The next time, ask, "Will Claire share her apple with Mommy?" Praise her if she 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 her help you make soup for a sick friend, for example -- she'll learn that when someone has a problem, there are things she can do to help.
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?").
As important as it is for you to step in and correct bad behavior, it's equally important that you praise the good. Make sure your little one knows she's sharing nicely and that you're proud. Say, for example, "You're doing a nice job of playing with Philip and the blocks." That reinforcement will help her remember the acts that got her kudos and she'll be more likely to repeat in future playdates.
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. Part of learning to interact with others is figuring out how to manage difficult situations. Give your child a chance to improve his own problem-solving skills.
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.
Inappropriate physical contact definitely requires an immediate response. If your little one is the offender, 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.
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. Updated 2010