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Sunday, February 5, 2023
HomeFamilyParenting AdviceWhen and how tots learn to share — Good Parenting

When and how tots learn to share — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son has been going to a lovely family child care provider since he was 12 months old. He is now 2 ½ years old and he still can’t share! The provider has to frequently intervene between toddlers who can’t seem to get the idea that they have to ask before taking a toy from someone else. I think most of the children do not have siblings, as mine doesn’t, but the five of them are together so much you’d think they’d get the hang of asking and waiting for a turn by now. Is there something we can do at home to teach him how to respect others?

Mommy and Daddy

Don’s miss last week’s column Tips for planning a multigenerational party — Good Parenting

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

How nice that your son has a steady group of playmates to play with! Social skills develop more readily when there are other children to watch and interact with. When playmates are the same day after day, they can learn each other’s personalities to fine tune their interactions to maximum advantage. Yes, you can expect your son, and the others, to be learning about the needs and feelings around them in their child care family, however, your expectations are just a bit advanced.

Infants Want What They Want When They Want It

No one should expect an infant to have consideration of others. Hunger, confusion, stress, boredom, discomfort, sadness, frustration and other powerful needs dominate the thought process of a baby. True, they are quickly learning to communicate distress to get the help they need, but babies are nowhere near ready to respond to the needs of someone else. Before a toddler is steady on his feet, he can only notice what he needs, and sometimes isn’t even sure what that is. Sharing is incomprehensible. Having plenty of toys (and attention) is the best tact for minimizing conflict. With a mixed age group, it sometimes happens that a baby gets hold of an older child’s plaything. A preschooler can be taught to manage “sharing” with an infant by finding something the baby would find more interesting as a trade. Simply hold the novel item in front of the baby’s eyes and nine times out of 10 he will automatically let go of the contested item. Unless of course he’s teething and the object is appeasing the unbearable pressure on his gums.

Toddlers Just Want What Someone Else Has (or to Do What He is Doing)

The stage known as “Parallel Play” starts around 18 months and lasts about two years until the age of 3 ½ years. At this normal stage of social development, the most attractive toy in the room is the one attached to another child. A smart caregiver therefore has duplicate items for the most popular toys, including multiple baby dolls and doll strollers. The motivation behind all the toy grabbing is that the toddler is beginning to see himself not as an ultimate being for whose purpose all objects exist, but rather as one of a set of beings known as young children. Body size probably gives the most salient suggestion that this other being is “like me.” Therefore “I could be doing what he is doing.” On the other hand, when there is no object to fight over, such as when everyone is doing a dance to lively music, they certainly can share! So long as there are identical objects or no objects at all, toddlers really do enjoy the company of others.

Two Actors, Each in a One-Man Play

The next stage toward sharing comes around age 3. One child may be stirring a pretend pot of spaghetti. The other is holding a baby doll and talking about getting the doll some dinner. If the spaghetti stirrer offers to serve at that point, it sure looks like the two children are playing together. The hitch is that if they both need the spoon at the same time, there will be a conflict. This is because to each child the other is just backdrop to his own make-believe scene. An adult’s compassionate redirection can help them move past the hitch (providing two spoons, for example, or suggesting the cook finish up with the spoon and use the rolling pin to roll out dough for dessert) and continue their individual scenes. Use simple sentences the children can learn to imitate, such as “Can I please have the spoon?” With an adult’s timely coaching and steady repetition, the children will soon master the phrases needed for some of their conflicts.

My Turn, Your Turn

A 4-year-old starts to imagine the thinking of his playmates. This is not truly empathy, though, since he is only interested in thoughts related to himself. This is the age children begin to co-plan their play. They share ideas and direct each other toward a mutual goal, such as laying track for the trains to run on or carrying out a pretend grocery store purchase. Each plays a role that connects to the other’s role. Adults are still important for helping them learn to negotiate conflict which the children are now very motivated to do. This is finally the age when children become vested in playing with each other, hence anxious to learn strategies they can employ themselves.

You don’t have to wait until he’s 4, though, to be using good sharing strategies in his presence and with him. It helps if Mommy and Daddy set a good example of sharing space, objects, feelings and ideas with each other. When you demonstrate a variety of ways that conflict can be settled you are building his “vocabulary” for expressing and understanding needs.

Show by example and suggest when appropriate that he:

  • Ask when your friend will be finished.
  • Let your friend know when you will be finished.
  • Find another one so you will each have one.
  • Offer a trade for something your friend would like better.
  • Divide a set of multiple objects (such as the train tracks) so that each child gets half.
  • Draw a line halfway across the sandbox so that each child gets half the area.
  • Use a timer (2 minutes is long enough) to help with even turn taking.

If you haven’t yet, make friends with the parents of another child or two that your son seems to enjoy the company of at his child care home. Start with a parent-child date, then work your way up to a “Mommy needs to run an errand” playdate. The more time your son has to practice his growing social skills – with supervision and guidance to help him be successful – the more quickly he will progress with his sharing abilities. Your reinforcement of strategies for sharing at home will help him make noticeable progress with his social skills.

Dr. Debbie

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

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