Dear Mr. Dad: My two-year-old is a terror on a playdate! He seems completely incapable of sharing toys and even grabs toys out of the hands of his little friends. I spend half of my time apologizing for him to other moms and dads. What can I do?

What a great question—reminds me of a poster one of my children’s day care providers had on her wall called “The Toddler’s Rules of Ownership.” Here are a few samples

  • If I like it, it’s mine.
  • If it’s in my hands, it’s mine.
  • If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
  • If I had it a week ago, it’s mine.
  • If it’s your and I steal it, it’s mine.

There are more, but I’m sure you get the point. The toddler who shares easily is a pretty rare bird. In fact, toddlers are supposed to be self-centered at this age. So let me start by assuring you that your son’s concept of ownership is as natural as could be for a toddler.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, language development explodes between the ages of two and three, and playdates give kids a chance to communicate with their peers, which is a very completely different (and developmentally useful) kind of talk than the one they use with Mom and Dad. Just so happens that some of the first things children find to talk about are territory and possessions.

Marking what’s mine and what, if anything, is yours, is also an important part of a child’s growing sense of identity. And while they may be hard to watch, grabby playdate battles over ownership are actually the first step in learning how to share. If we intervene too quickly—before the child learns for himself how people react to having things snatched out of their hands—we’re delaying their development in that area.

That said, here are a few ways to keep your child’s developing sense of sharing moving in the right direction while keeping the playdates relatively sane:

  1. Prepare your child for the playdate. Talk about the fact that there will be times when more than one child wants the same toy. Ask your son if he’d like the other kids to sometimes share, and make the point that he too must then be willing to share sometimes.
  2. Put away the unsharables. We all had toys that were special, toys we just couldn’t bear to share. And that’s OK. Ask your child to decide which of his own toys are so special that he wants them just for himself, then remove them from the playroom for the duration of the playdate if it’s in your home (or, if you’re going elsewhere, don’t bring them along). Then, underline the fact that it’s OK to share the rest, and that he’ll still have all of his own toys when the playdate is done.
  3. Practice sharing. While playing alone with your child at home, ask if you can borrow a block, a doll, or a toy. Use the language of sharing whenever possible: “Can you share this with me? I promise I’ll give it back when I’m done.” When you do give it back, say out loud, “Here you are—thanks for sharing!”
  4. Enforce a no-grabbing policy. Sharing goes both ways. If your son grabs a toy from another child, step in immediately, return the toy to the child who had it first, and remind your son of the oldest ethical principle on Earth: “How would you like it if she grabbed something away from you?” Remind him to ask nicely, wait turns, and offer a trade if possible. But set a good example: If you grab a toy from one child in order to return it to another, you’re telling both kids that grabbing is really okay, as long as the grabber is bigger than the grabbee.

Remember, sharing is a learned behavior, and with your help, your child can and will learn it.