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Parental Advisory: Playground Pariah

My seventeen-month-old is ecstatic to be out in the park with the other kids. I thought I would be, too, but there’s a slight problem: All I do is negotiate the sharing of toys! My kid is not interested in sharing his toys and he’s not interested in giving other people’s toys back. It’s a pretty unpleasant side of him. I’m praying it’s totally normal and will pass. Is it and will it? Can I do anything? Some of the other toddlers seem to be able to tolerate parting with a toy, and their parents seem happy about it. – Mother of a Hog

Dear M.O.H.,

Daffodils line the lawn, birds flutter about, and across the sun-speckled swing set, we can hear the telltale chirps of spring: “MINE! MINE! MINE!!!!!!!!!!!”

Trying to get a toddler to share is a painful and often futile experience; and being a new mother in the playground is much more complicated that it looks. One- and two-year-olds have no clue what sharing means, nor should we expect them to. It’s not developmentally within their reach.

Ownership, community property, borrowing: these are complex concepts for a little tot who just really wants that shiny blue shovel. Your son’s hogging says about as much about his future personality as his babbling and interest in putting small items in his mouth. He’s not an evil despot on the making. All toddlers are barbarians. Some are just better at it than others.

Still, this toy-grabbing drama will go on for a while. While you could just sit by the sidelines spacing out while he hordes every ball and action figure in the land, part of parenting a toddler is showing them how to deal with other people. And that includes taking turns and sharing. Expecting him to be a good sharer very soon is unrealistic, but getting across the concept is a key *long term* goal.

Some ideas you might consider:

BYO basic playground kit. Coveted items often include balls, mini strollers, buckets and shovels. If you have your own stash with you at all times, not only does your son have stuff to play with, he’s got some bartering materials. Of course, you have negotiate the bartering. If your child is interested in another toy, suggest a trade and see how that goes. It can be easier for toddlers to part with something if a new thing is placed in their hands. It’s best not to use very special or favorite things in this type of exchange. Likewise, if your child is angling toward someone else’s prized possession, you’ll probably want to steer him toward something less precious.

When he grabs something from another kid, hand it back nicely and then show your son how you ask for it politely. Don’t expect him to “use his words” quite yet, but he will see your good example. In general it’s good to “model” sharing, caring behavior so that your appropriately selfish child can at least get a glimpse of another way for a future time.

Give each kid a turn. Maybe count to ten for each turn (you can time the count according to how desperate everyone seems to be). This doesn’t always work in the face of toddler tantrums. But when it does, it can be a good way for kids to experience a fair exchange, and they may even learn to count to ten.

If you want a little perspective, observe the behavior of the older, seasoned parents around the sandbox. Where newcomers tend to be very hands-on and proactive, seasoned parents and caregivers are generally a lot less fazed by the sharing scene. They will intervene when necessary, but you’ll notice there’s a lot less energy spent on hovering and/or shame.

All this can all get pretty tiring. A lovely family picnic in a public space can be ruined if there’s another kid nearby with a ball. You can only thoughtfully return the ball to the other kid so many times before you want to blow your brains out. In these situations, you just need to get up and find a more isolated spot with fewer temptations. Because, let’s face it, even us sharing, caring grown-ups need to hog a little something to ourselves from time to time.

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