Enter the almost-3-year-old. While still spending lots of time tussling over toys, he begins to display a new spirit of cooperation. Similar-age playmates engage in ever more elaborate fantasy games such as tea parties, help each other finish puzzles, and express concern over one another's boo-boos.
During the year between the second and third birthdays, progress made in the arena of socialization seems nothing short of miraculous. Here's how you can best help your 2-year-old through these momentous developments as his social skills begin to blossom.
One mistake parents frequently make is fretting over the apparent lack of interest a 2-year-old has in playmates. Although a child this age may shriek with delight at the prospect of seeing a familiar child, the rendezvous itself can be anticlimactic, at least from a parent's point of view: Both kids end up playing separately, with nary a word passing between them.
Have no fear. There is socializing of a sort going on here. The "dialogue" of toddlerhood-staring, smiling, and imitating-may be subtle. Nonetheless, it's important. Piece by tentative piece, the groundwork is being laid for a lifetime of positive interactions with others. In fact, research shows that children as young as 20 months old are already beginning to form unique relationships. They prefer certain playmates over others, and the fondness is usually reciprocal.
One reason why these toddler friendships aren't readily apparent: Two-year-olds engage mainly in what experts call parallel play; that is, they play next to, but not necessarily with, each other. Many early play behaviors also take the form of parallel imitation: A child watches another playing with a toy and then wants to repeat the experience.
This offers a partial explanation for why "No, mine!" may be the most frequently heard phrase at any toddler gathering. Another reason for tiffs over toys: Two-year-olds are notoriously egocentric. They find it difficult-or impossible-to see another point of view. Since the concepts of me and mine are linked closely to a child's budding sense of self-esteem, it's best to take a gentle approach to conflicts over sharing. If several children are fighting over one toy, simply put it away and help them to move on to another diversion.
By the time your child reaches age 2 1/2 to 3, you can start introducing the concept of turn taking in ways that are easily understood. Say, for example, "Sarah can play with the doll for five minutes, and then it's Emily's turn." Use a kitchen timer to help your child gain an appreciation of the length of the time limit imposed.