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What to expect at this age
"Mine!" your 2-year-old shouts, grabbing a doll from her playmate. No sooner have you smoothed out that squabble than another erupts. "No!" your child yells as her visitor picks up her favorite ball and rolls it across the floor. As far as you're concerned, your kid is acting selfish and bossy, and if she keeps it up she's likely to wind up friendless.
As exasperating as these episodes can be, try to be philosophical about them. Your child is acting in perfect keeping with a 2-year-old's view of the world, in which her own things (or anything that strikes her fancy, for that matter) are an extension of herself. "Two-year-olds are beginning to understand possession, and they are developing a strong sense of self, which make mine and no two of their favorite words," says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Of course, some 2-year-olds are happy by nature to give a pal one of their cookies, but most are more possessive. In fact, many 2-year-olds aren't developmentally ready to share. Sure, they can play side by side with other kids if you keep a close eye on them, but expect some inconsistencies with give-and-take. Sharing is a learned activity, and mastering it takes some time. Nonetheless, you can introduce your child now to the merits of sharing, then build on the groundwork you're laying as she gets older.
What to do
Practice taking turns. You flip one page of your child's bedtime book, and she flips the next. Or you stack a block on top of hers, then she stacks another on top of yours. You could also take turns putting puzzle pieces together or pushing a toy car down a ramp. Try give-and-take games, too: You hug her teddy, then give it to her to hug and return to you. You kiss her teddy, then give it to her to kiss, and so on. She'll begin to learn that taking turns and sharing can be fun and that giving up her things doesn't mean she'll never get them back.
Don't punish stinginess. If you tell your 2-year-old that she's selfish, discipline her when she doesn't share, or force her to hand over a prized possession, you'll encourage resentment, not generosity. "Never punish a child, especially a 2-year-old, for not sharing," says Susanne Denham, Ph.D., developmental psychology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "It is, after all, a very personal decision."
Talk it up. Help your child explore the emotions that relate to sharing. If a friend is holding something back, explain to your child how her buddy might be feeling. For instance: "Josie loves her teddy, and she really wants to hug him right now." Help her put her own feelings into words too: "I know you want your doll," or "You're sad because Sofia took your car." Give your child plenty of praise when she does loosen her grip on something. At snack time, for instance, remark on how nicely she and her playmate are divvying up the cookies and point out how much fun it is to share a treat with a friend.
Cheer little steps toward sharing. Two-year-olds sometimes show their possessions — and even let others touch them — without actually letting go of them. "Encourage this 'proto-sharing' by telling your child how nice it is that she's showing her toy," says Denham. Eventually, bolstered by your praise, she'll feel secure enough to loosen her grip.
Set the stage. If you're expecting pint-size company, have your child put her "special" toys away before her friend arrives. In their place, provide playthings that are easy to enjoy in tandem — blocks, tea sets, crayons and coloring books, dress-up clothes, and modeling clay, for instance. Tell your 2-year-old and her visitor that they can share these things, and compliment them when they do. If one of the children is heading for a toy her friend has a death grip on, distract her with a question, a snack, or another toy.
Respect your child's things. If your 2-year-old feels that her clothes, books, and toys are being manhandled, it's unlikely she'll give them up even for a moment. So ask permission before you borrow her crayon, and give her the option of saying no. Make sure that siblings, playmates, and babysitters respect her things too, by asking to use them and by taking good care of them when they do.
Lead by example. The best way for your child to learn generosity is to witness it. So share your ice cream with her. Offer her your scarf to wear, and ask if you can try on her barrette. Use the word share to describe what you're doing, and don't forget to teach her that intangibles (like feelings, ideas, and stories) can be shared too. Most important, let her see you give and take, compromise, and share with others.
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