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I am frequently asked when children learn to share. Don’t mean to be discouraging but it can take a long time.

Two-year-olds are definitely not sharers. They are much more likely to engage in a behavior best called “grab the toy”. When they see a desirable toy, they grab it with absolutely no regard for whose toy it is. The child whose toy is grabbed is apt to hang on for dear life or use it to hit the grabber. A child this age has no sense of the advantages of sharing or taking turns.

As parents, our first impulse is to say, “Be nice! Share your toy with Josh!” Pretty futile!

Your child has to be taught what it means to share. If you grab away your child’s toy and give it to Josh, you may make your child more possessive–the very thing you want to prevent. Now the child thinks toys must be protected from grabbing grown-ups as well as peers.

What strategies do work?

SHOW YOUNG BABIES WHAT SHARING IS. Give the baby some of your toast and ask for some in return. Make a game out of it. (Although babies may like this game, they will still go through the grabbing and squabbling stage.)

PLAY GIVE-AND-TAKE GAMES. Rolling a ball back and forth is good for starters. Then graduate to, “Bring me the red block and I’ll give you the green one.”

Always say, “THAAANNNK YOU!” in a very exaggerated tone every time the child gives you something. Your enthusiasm for what the child gives you is important.

TEACH TODDLERS THAT SHARING CAN BE FUN. Point out the advantages of sharing at every opportunity. Tell Jennifer that if she shares her bear with Jeremy, he will let her play with his armadillo. Explain how taking turns works. “First Jeremy will play the drum and Jennifer will march. Then Jennifer will play while Jeremy marches!”

REACT SLOWLY. When a toy has just been grabbed, do nothing. Sometimes young children will work it out–more because of their short attention span than the sudden acquisition of altruism. But stand close and keep an eye on the situation so you can step in to separate them if hostilities escalate.

REPEAT SHARING PROPAGANDA OFTEN. Eventually both the grabber and grabbee will learn that children get something out of sharing. They get their turn, they get to play with different toys and, best of all, they win the approval of all the adults around. So keep reminding your Twos to share. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.

PREVENT PROBLEMS. Have enough sharable playthings like crayons and books. Of course both children may want the very same book at the very same moment but I never said parenting was easy. Try distraction or a small bribe. “If you give Jeremy the drum I will get you the xylophone.”.

CHILDREN DIFFER. Some aggressive two-year-olds may repeatedly take toys away from another child. Don’t allow such behavior. And protect the passive, non-aggressive child. Such a child may start to cry, look to you for help, or hand over the toy, not in the spirit of generosity but in a state of bewilderment. Help such a child learn to be normally assertive. “Joshua, it’s your turn to play with the bear!”