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Teaching Toy Responsibility

Within a day, your 3-year-old's brand-new train set is a wreck  -- several cars are missing or broken. Your child is a wreck as well, crying over his ruined toy. If he's so upset, you think, why doesn't he take better care of his things in the first place?

Call Him Irresponsible?

"All preschoolers break or lose things from time to time," says Michael Kaplan, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, in New Haven, CT. An inappropriate toy is in particular danger: "If you give a Game Boy to a five-year-old who hasn't been exposed to other electronic games, don't be surprised if it winds up broken or lost," Dr. Kaplan says. The same goes for a "quiet" plaything, such as a model plane or a board game, that ends up in the hands of a rambunctious child.

Lessons On Possesions

An episode of reckless behavior with a toy can be turned into an opportunity to teach a child to care for his things  -- a lesson that will serve as a building block for bigger responsibilities to come, like feeding the dog and following through on homework assignments. Take time to explain to your child how to play with a new acquisition; point out if it needs a gentle touch. If he seems unable to follow your instructions, he may not be ready for the toy. Put the item away, saying, "This is something we have to play with together. Let me know when you want to use it." Other ways to teach your child about preserving the life of personal possessions:

  • Show him how to store his things safely. Set a good example by keeping your own possessions in place  -- books on shelves, shoes in closet, laptop computer on the desk when not in use.

  • Consider allowing a neglected (and inexpensive) toy, such as one left outside, to get damaged, so he learns about natural consequences, says Jon Mahrer, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and father of Anna, 4, and Ben, 7, in San Francisco.

  • Recognize that sometimes kids deliberately take toys apart in order to explore and play with them in new and different ways. What looks like a broken plaything to you may be a "science experiment" to your child. And sometimes that kind of learning can be just as valuable as lessons in keeping things in one piece.

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A Sign Of Other Trouble?

A child who constantly breaks, loses, or otherwise misuses his things  -- no matter what they are or whom he's playing with  -- could be grappling with some serious emotional issues, says Yale psychiatrist Michael Kaplan, M.D. He may be feeling stressed by preschool or by a change at home, such as a divorce, move, or the arrival of a new sibling. If the behavior continues over several weeks and talking to him about it gets you nowhere, consider seeking advice from your pediatrician.

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