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The Art of Sharing

Playing With Pals

As every parent knows, the biggest challenge comes when you invite another child to your house to play. The guest is thrilled to have a roomful of unfamiliar toys to explore, while the host is wary of having his things touched. To keep tantrums to a minimum:

Have a plan. Before you invite someone to come over, take your child's temperament into account, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, in Washington, DC, and mom to Sam, 9, and Jessica, 7. "Some kids are more flexible than others and more easygoing. Especially when they're younger, less outgoing children see sharing as an invasion of their space," explains Lerner, adding that her son often felt this way when he was a preschooler.

If your little one is slow to warm up to any type of change, talking about the visit an hour or two before can help. You can discuss how he'll handle his frustration when his friend plays with his things, and together you can brainstorm; this strategy usually worked for Lerner's son. "For preschoolers, the more they think of the ideas, the easier time they'll have," says Lerner.

Offer choices. Let your child decide which toys he's willing to let others play with, says Renee Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica. Then let him store the rest of them away.

Marci Goldberg, of Woodland Hills, California, went one step further when her son Logan, now 4, first started having playdates. "I'd tell him several times, 'You know, your friend is going to be playing with those toys you left out.'" But often Logan himself would get out the special toys he'd put away. "Since he had the choice, he was able to make that gesture," says Goldberg.

If your toddler's under 2, you'll probably have to be the one to shelve his bedtime snuggle object or anything else he values highly.

Sometimes kids are afraid their toys will be thrown or broken. So establish the rules soon after his playmates arrive: Tell all the kids that the toys must be handled nicely and if they're not, you'll take them away.

Practice taking turns. Around 3, a child can truly understand that when he shares an object, he can expect that it will be returned. Until he does, having him take turns whenever he plays with pals is a good way to help him learn this. Goldberg kept the turn-taking to a minute each. "That way, it was easier for Logan to make the connection that letting someone play with his things didn't mean they were gone forever," she says.

Another tactic — Cohen calls it "mutual sharing" — is to invite the visitor to bring along some toys of his own; your child may be more willing to hand over a beloved object if his playmate has something to offer in return.

Go outside. There's always the possibility that your child won't be willing to part with any toy. If that's the case, go out to the backyard and have the kids toss a ball around or chase each other. Or involve them together in an activity indoors — whether it's rolling out Play-Doh or playing house — that's less likely to cause conflict between them.

Take a break if there's a breakdown. Of course, you can prepare your child in every way, start the visit off with a group activity, and still witness a meltdown. "I remember getting indignant with Sam and trying to force him to share," says Lerner. But eventually she learned that the best way to handle his outbursts was by doing something less stressful. "Sometimes I'd ask each child to pick out a book for me to read aloud," she says. Other times, she found that fixing a snack together worked.

After his friend has gone home, you can talk about what happened and ask your child how he'd have felt if his pal had had the tantrum. You can also role-play before the kids meet again. You pretend to be the playmate and tell your child, "I'm going to play with this truck now." Then the two of you can explore his responses. That way, you'll both be more prepared when the next playdate rolls around.

Acknowledge his feelings. Learning to take turns and to give up their toys are difficult concepts for young kids to grasp; if your child doesn't like to do either one, try to let him know that you're aware of how difficult it is for him, says Lerner.

And if he's just become a big brother, adapt your strategies. When a playmate comes over, go to a park or put some paints out, and by all means let your child know how much you appreciate his willingness to share everything right now.