The Dreaded Play Date: Why won’t my toddler share his toys?

development1Does your toddler clutch his toy tightly when you suggest he share it with another child?  Does she shake her head vigorously and say, “No! Mine!”  Or worse, does she push or hit a child who reaches for the toy she is holding?  And then embarrass you further by taking another kid’s toy after refusing to share her toy?

What thoughts run through your mind?   “Here we go again…my child is acting mean and selfish”;  “Those mothers must think I’m a bad parent for not being able to control my child”;  “Why is my child the only one who doesn’t share?”

Many parents we work with have these concerns. Developmentally speaking, toddlers are not able and should not be expected to share.  Sharing is a concept that starts to make sense to children sometime between the ages of 3 and 4, when collaborative play and the capacity for taking the perspective of another person are emerging. 

From birth to age 3, children’s main developmental task is to acquire a sense of self.  A child’s play and his toys constitute a huge part of his identity.  Tommy all alone in a vacuum has no sense of himself, but “Tommy rolling a truck” or “Tommy digging with a shovel” gives Tommy a sense of who he is, of what he likes, of what his purpose is in the moment.  If that tenuous sense of self is threatened or disrupted, Tommy will be upset and resist.  If, on the other hand, a toy in the hand of another child appeals to him, he will try and take it.  Parents complain that their child only wants a toy if another child is using it.  That’s right! The picture of the other child using that toy looks good to him and he would like to have a similar experience. 

The first appropriate step toward achieving the goal of sharing is learning to take turns. A two year old can be helped to tolerate and understand turn taking if an adult structures it for her.  If she reaches for another child’s toy, we can gently hold back her grabbing hand and say, “I think you want that, let’s tell Sam you want a turn.”  (The physical holding gives the message that you don’t want her to grab, while the words are saying, “It’s okay to want that.”  Do not focus on “it’s not nice to grab”.) 

Then, you can speak for your child or, if she can speak for herself, tell her, “You can say, ‘I want a turn’”.  If the other child refuses, the turn taking structure is implemented as follows:  the child who has the toy is told that in a little while, it will be another child’s turn and then it will be his turn again after that.  After a minute, you can say “I will count to 10 and then it will be Susie’s turn” or “Let’s sing the ABC song and then it will be Kevin’s turn.” 

During the waiting time, stay with the child and help her by telling her that her turn is coming soon. Usually the child who has the toy will hand it over spontaneously before the counting or singing is up.  If she does not, the toy will have to be pried out of her hands with the guarantee that she will get it back shortly.  The sequence is repeated as long as both children are interested in using that toy.

The advantage of this system is that children experience immediately and repeatedly that handing over a toy to another child does not mean losing that toy.  Many children enjoy the turn taking, not only because they anticipate having another turn, but because it becomes a game, a fun form of early socializing.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep play dates short (45 minutes may be plenty)
  • If the play date is in your house, remove with your child the special toys that you know he will not let another child touch
  • Organize play dates with like-minded parents who are willing to participate in structuring turn taking
  • If your child is in a stage of intense grabbing, hitting, and pushing, hold off on play dates (and the sandbox!) for a while
  • Meet other parents for coffee without the kids
  • Remind yourself that aggressive behavior is typical of this stage of development and in no way predicts what kind of person your child will be later on
  • Do not shame your child for negative behaviors, but rather focus on what you can do to help your child achieve his or her goals.

Upper West Side Parenting Support helps mothers and fathers in their transition to parenthood through family consultations and discussion and play groups. Our parenting experts address child development, behavior challenges, and common parenting concerns, such as sleep, eating and tantrums.

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