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Ask Dr. Sears: Sharing

Q. My 3-year-old is wonderful to be around, except when another child wants something he's playing with. Then he turns into a terror. What can I do to stop this?

"It's mine!" is one of the first phrases to come out of a toddler's mouth. Unfortunately, selfishness comes before sharing. The desire to possess is a natural part of toddler development; a child forming strong attachments is a vital part of his developing emotional health. This is why a 1-year-old has difficulty sharing her mommy and a 2-year-old has difficulty sharing his teddy bear. A young child will be unwilling to give up a prized possession, such as a doll, because the object has become a part of who she is. When asked to draw a picture of herself, one of our kids, 6-year-old Hayden, would always include her favorite doll (as if it were a part of her body). Naturally, she wasn't willing to share this doll with playmates, let alone us. When a toddler lets another child play with his toys, he's not sure he'll ever get them back. Before your toddler can begin to share things or give them away, he must first feel that he owns them outright, and he must be secure in this knowledge -- that his possessions are his and his alone.

The ability to share requires empathy on the part of a child; in other words, his being able to see through the eyes of another child. Realistically, children under the age of 6 have trouble doing this. Toddlers who are 3 years old will play alongside one another (called parallel play), but seldom play and share cooperatively for longer than a few minutes. Around the age of 4, a child may begin selective sharing -- reserving a few precious possessions for himself but letting a few trusted friends play with his other things. At this age, a child will start to recognize that not all of his surroundings belong to him. You will hear him begin to say, for example, "Mommy's keys," "Daddy's car," or "Jenny's skates." He begins to understand that some items are his and that some are someone else's. At this age, kids begin to understand the concept of time, which enables them to part with favorite objects for short periods -- sometimes hesitantly, but with the knowledge that the toy will soon be theirs again. Between 4 and 6, your child will begin to realize that the same toy that pleases him also pleases his friends. He'll begin to develop an appreciation for other's feelings, and he'll want to please his friends. He starts to understand that his pals will use a toy of his for a while and that he will eventually get it back. This is how he learns what 4-year-olds know: It's more pleasurable to play with his toys with friends than it is to play with the toys by himself.

Forcing your son to share will never work, of course, but you can create an environment that encourages him to do so. Here's how:

Model generosity to your children: Monkey see, monkey do. Share your "toys" willingly. When a friend of yours asks to borrow one of your "toys," use this moment to teach: "Look, honey, Mommy is sharing her cookbook with her friend." Let your sharing shine. Also, share with your toddler: "Want some of my cookie?"

Use an older child as a model: Hand a 5-year-old two cookies with one condition: He has to give one to your son. The younger child learns from the older one that giving and sharing is the right thing to do.

Use toys and play as models: Through play, you can teach your son how to understand human relationships. He may act out his generosity by caring for a doll or stuffed animal. Say to him: "Teddy's hungry. Would you share your cracker with him?"

Play sharing games: Our kids loved to play Share Daddy. The 2-year-old sat on one knee and the 4-year-old on the other so that they could share me while we played patty-cake. Another good game is breaking snacks into four or more pieces (some are made to do just that): Give a snack to your son, then have him break off pieces for his friends.

Time share: Settling squabbling over toys is an early opportunity to teach children compassion and fairness. If two kids want to play with the same toy at the same time, set a timer (two minutes may be the limit of some children's ability to wait). When the timer goes off, the toy goes to the second child for the same amount of time. Since a few minutes is an eternity for a child, you can expect to hear, "Daddy, how long?" Between 3 and 4, a child begins to understand such terms as "For a few minutes" and "While I count to 10." Also useful: When you're going to another toddler's house, have your son bring along a few toys to share. When he discovers that the child he's visiting has other, new toys to play with, he'll be more willing to share his.

It's important to remember that parenting is frequently about "giving" your children the tools they need to succeed in life, and sharing is just one of them. When a child learns to share, she learns to give, to receive, and to wait.