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A recent question: “What do you suggest about greediness in children? My 4-year-old wants everything she sees. She grabbed all the candy out of a dish at my mother’s house and didn’t even eat it but she didn’t want her cousins to get any. When she plays with other children she tries to take all the toys or all the “good” ones first. Watching her do this bothers me but I’m not sure what to do. I hate to correct her in front of her cousins and friends but I am afraid nobody will want to play with her. My husband says ignore it because it’s just a phase.”

Both parents are right. It is a phase. It is bothersome to watch.

Preschool children are egocentric–they believe the universe revolves around them. When you’re 4 you think, Why shouldn’t I take all the candy? I WANT IT!

What happens between this age and adulthood? Children learn how the world works. They learn this vital lesson in several ways.

Their best teachers are their peers. Kids learn in preschool and play groups that if they don’t share nobody will want to play with them. They also watch children their age or a bit older do the “correct” thing like take one or two candies and share rather than hoard toys.

But parents and teachers also have an important role to play. We grownups show and tell children the RULES. We show how we take one candy and leave the rest for others.

We also tell children the rules. This is not as simple as it sounds. You said in your letter that you didn’t want to correct your daughter in front of her friends. You mean that you don’t want to call attention to her “badness” or embarrass her or cause her to become the subject of teasing.

But ignoring “bad” behavior gives the message that the behavior is OK by us. The trick is to STATE THE RULE, not criticize the child.

What the wise parent says in the situation you described is, “The rule is we only take one candy out of the dish.” This infinitely better than saying, “Susan, stop being a little pig!” Or “ I’ve told you a million times to share!” or “Why can’t you be good like your cousin!”

Why is stating the rule such a useful parental ploy? It is impersonal because a rule refers to everybody. It is not hurtful. It does not tell the assembled crowd how disobedient Susan is. It does not compare her to another child. But it does call attention to what behavior is approved.

Other useful strategies include the gentle reminder, role-playing, and “How would you feel if…?”. The next time you are going to grandma’s house remind your daughter that big kids don’t grab all the candy because it’s against the rule. You can make a game out of learning good play manners by pretending to be your daughter’s little friend and taking turns sharing toys. You can ask your daughter about play situations, both how she would feel if someone grabbed all the toys and what would be a better way.

Your daughter’s behavior is absolutely normal and she will grow out of it. But she still needs to hear the rules. Distraction, removal, and ignoring mild misbehaviors are all useful techniques when dealing with babies and toddlers. But preschoolers need many reminders of the rules before they learn them, so ignoring bothersome behaviors is counterproductive.

Sometimes life situations make children more “grabby”. A problem at home that preoccupies the parents or the birth of a sibling could cause the child to feel displaced which translates into feeling needy. Some extra one-on-one time with each parent can work wonders.

Finally, one reason parents get so upset with bothersome behaviors is that they think the child’s actions herald delinquent behavior in the future. They see little Susan shoplifting candy bars from the drug store one day.

Not to worry. Kids don’t learn the rules overnight but all normal children will learn the rules. My daughter told me how Jeremy behaved at a brunch when he was 4. He spotted a two-pound slab of fudge at the end of the table and he was told after he ate his food he could have a piece. Jeremy raced through his meal and my daughter had to intervene when she looked up to find him sawing the slab in half with a plastic knife to get his “piece”of fudge. Greedy? Yes. Delinquent? No.