Allie Welsh and her best friend, Megan, both 2 1/2, played peacefully on the carpet as their mothers chatted nearby. The visit progressed pleasantly, as usual, until out of nowhere, "they both began tugging at a doll, screaming, 'It's mine, it's mine,' " says Allie's mom, Nancy, of Bellevue, Washington. "Finally, my friend had to hold the doll over her head to get them to stop."
Sound familiar? Such encounters are routine in the life of a spirited 2-year-old. And, typically, when a quarrel erupts over a bear, book, or crayon, concerned parents -- who want their kids to grow up with friends and social skills -- implore their toddlers to share. But when you ask 2-year-olds to share, they usually have no idea what you're talking about. "To ask a toddler to let another child play with a toy is to ask her to give it up forever," says Carla Poole, a child-development specialist at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City.
By 8 or 9 months, many babies will happily hand food or toys to parents or siblings, so it may come as a shock that the baby you saw sharing just over a year ago now has a meltdown when another child touches a toy. According to experts, "Children under 1 have no sense of ownership and a limited memory and sense of time. When they give something away, they think the object no longer exists," says Poole.
Two-year-olds, however, are a different story. "After the first year, children become aware of specific preferences," says Poole. As far as they're concerned, if they like something, it's theirs. Two-and-a-half-year-old Hope Klein, of Scarsdale, New York, is no exception. "She thinks everything is hers," groans her mother, Elaine. "If she's looked at it or touched it, it belongs to her."
But before you start extolling the virtues of sharing to your toddler, you must first readjust your own thinking on the topic. "Mine is often one of the first words toddlers learn and an intellectual milestone; once a child understands the feeling of ownership, he is on his way to learning to share," says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. "Identifying ownership isn't a sign of selfishness -- it's a sign of knowledge. It demonstrates a desire to understand the world."
Guiding a toddler to the point where she can share easily may take months; learning to share, like other refined social skills, takes time and requires constant attention. "Start as early as you can," says Dr. Honig. "As soon as he starts saying 'Mine,' he'll be able to learn the difference between what's his and what belongs to someone else." Here are ways to help your child master this sophisticated skill.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 1999 issue of Parents magazine.