Dear Dr. Debbie,
I get so embarrassed when my otherwise civil 2-year-old grabs a toy out of another child’s hand. He has been saying “Pease?” and “Ta-tu” for over a year now, but lately I’m on guard if we have a play date. Sometimes it seems as if he only wants a toy if another child has it. Why can’t he share?
Trying to Teach Him
Don’t miss last week’s column How to motivate a reluctant child — Good Parenting
It is admirable that you want to help your son to be polite and a good playmate. There are some developmental limits, however, on a 2-year-old’s ability to put anyone’s needs above his own.
In the Moment
Up until about the age of 4, it is difficult for a child to consider any time but now. On an adult scale, it’s like asking you to fathom the beginning or end of time. Because a child cannot understand time — we’re talking a few minutes even — he is no good at waiting “just a few minutes,” nor recognizing the benefit of “if you let her have it now, she will let you have it later.” He has no way to process the reality of something that might happen “later.” Delaying gratification, therefor, is a stretch for him.
You have aptly described a developmental stage of social play in which, indeed, the most attractive toy in the room is the one attached to another child. Children gradually grow out of this. This stage of “parallel play” is most powerful as a child transitions from babyhood to being a kid. A baby has most of his needs met by grown-ups; a kid has some needs that can only be met by other kids. In between, he uses other children to give him an idea of what he might be doing, but still needs adults to guide him through any ensuing conflict. The best prevention is to be sure there are “parallel objects” (duplicate toys) and lots of opportunities to interact with other children when there are no objects to squabble over — for example, clapping your hands while singing a silly song together.
For a 2-year-old, the importance of any particular object can change rapidly. Think of supply and demand only on a more passionate interpretation. If your child is role playing being a parent, and thinks (perhaps because he sees) that a stroller is necessary for taking one’s baby for a walk, he must immediately have the only doll stroller in sight. That is the one being used by another child. If he can’t instantly have it, he acts as if the world has come to an end. At the moment of dispute, the value of a toy involved in a tug-of-war may have risen to that of life itself. This reaction can be explained with brain development. The area of the brain responsible for registering emotion and directing action to be taken – the amygdala – is unbridled in infancy and only gradually takes on socially acceptable constraints as the child approaches 5 years old. In other words, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers react strongly to their very strong emotions. Persuasive distraction is an effective tactic for disengaging the child from his emotional thinking. Sell him on doing something else with his baby (of equal or greater value) until the stroller is available.
Use Your Words
The communication skills of most 2-year-olds impair their ability to put their needs into words. This doesn’t mean that your son shouldn’t be guided with the proper use of “I need . . .” and “Could you please . . .” as you show him how these phrases will help him. Model their usage both between the two of you as well as coaching him (or speaking for him) around other children. You can also provide demonstrations of asking for things as well as asserting one’s right to continue using things by putting words in the mouths of dolls or puppets. “Please, Doggie, can I use that bowl?” “I’ll be finished soon, Kitty Cat. Then you can have it.”
Up until the age of 7, it is difficult for a child to consider someone else’s point of view. Egocentric is the term Jean Piaget applied to a young child’s inability to see ideas, or even objects, from another perspective. He can only see things as they look to him based on his prior experience, his needs at the moment and his actual visual perspective. The classic test Piaget designed had three objects on the table. Different placards showed the objects in varying orders from left to right. If he asked a child of any age to point to the order he saw on the table, the correct placard was picked. However, if asked to show what Dr. Piaget was looking at, from the opposite side of the table, only those children who were age 7 and up could correctly pick the placard that had the objects in the reverse order of how the child saw them. Maybe you have said to your son, “Don’t you see that Graham wants a turn?” only to have him answer, “No! He wants me to have it!” Save your breath and help both children to have what they need. (Provide a second stroller, substitute a different toy or activity, count slowly to ten while each child takes a turn, or help them to use the stroller together — one push and one pull.)
Learning to share is an important lesson for 2-year-olds, but give it about three years to become well-learned.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com