Your toddler isn't trying to be unkind when he grabs a friend's toy; in fact, he probably doesn't understand that what he did was not okay. "A toddler simply doesn't 'get' sharing," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. Little kids are only starting to be able to put themselves in another person's shoes, so they don't yet realize that refusing to share could upset a friend. Over the next months, she'll better understand that others have feelings and that her actions can make someone else sad, angry, or happy. But until then, these do's and don'ts will help you encourage generosity, or at least head off a playdate tug-of-war.
Toddlers cling to their possessions because they don't understand there's a difference between sharing a toy and giving it up for good. First, explain to your child that when she lets a friend play with one of her things, she will get it back after a short time. Turn sharing into a game. Set a timer; and when the buzzer goes off, the kids swap toys.
When he has an "it's mine" meltdown, distract him with another activity. And praise him when he gets it right. Say, "You're doing such a great job of sharing your truck with Matthew." also, model the behavior you want him to mimic. Point out examples of your family's kindness. For example, say, "look, honey, Daddy's sharing his cookie with me. Thanks, Daddy!"
To avoid tantrums, put out items that are easy to share, like paints and chalk. Better yet, engage kids with a sing-along or a game of follow the leader to take the emphasis off of specific toys.
To prevent squabbles, before hosting a playdate, stow a few of your child's most-loved things. Explain that other toys are for everyone to have fun with.
Playgrounds and other public spots might be better hangouts for a kid who feels possessive on her own turf.
Your child will need lots of practice with letting kids play with her stuff--and constant explanations about the importance of sharing. as she realizes that it feels good to make other people happy, her capacity for generosity will expand in wonderful ways.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.