Dealing With a Selfish Toddler

How can I teach my two-year-old to share his things and be more cooperative, generous, and kind when he plays with others? I've been shocked to see how selfish he can be in social situations with other children.

No matter how flawlessly your child has been reared, the virtue of sharing with others probably won’t become a part of his social repertoire until sometime around the third birthday. Sharing is not an easy concept to grasp at this age for a number of reasons: the inborn, primitive self-centeredness of infancy and toddlerhood doesn’t wane easily; patience is in short supply at age two; and it takes a while to grasp the idea that something given up now can be retrieved later.

While you shouldn’t let your toddler act like a playroom tyrant, you shouldn’t expect to see any light bulbs go on while you give an inspirational message about the importance of being unselfish or ask, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?”

The best strategy for dealing with selfish behavior usually involves a distraction of some kind. For instance, you might deal with a squabble over a toy or book by diverting the combatants’ attention to something else. You can also demonstrate the concept of taking short turns (five minutes or less) by using a kitchen timer: “Jared can have the book until the buzzer goes off, and then Samantha gets to look at it.” This second option is especially useful because it gives your child an opportunity to experience sharing (however reluctantly), and even to begin making a habit of it, under your immediate supervision. Save your oration about the virtues of sharing for next year, when he can better understand what you’re talking about and retain the basic idea.

Many parents look to nursery schools and play groups to provide training in this area. We have mixed feelings about this. A great deal depends on a child’s developmental readiness for group interaction, and this is something that parents and teachers aren’t in a position to “force” no matter how hard they try. Child development experts generally agree that most children don’t get much out of structured “socializing” until they are at least two-and-a-half years old. Under normal circumstances, the foundations for healthy, productive interactions with others will be laid at home and in low-key, informal play with friends under your direction. Children at this age tend to play one-on-one rather than in true group activities. We suspect that, given time, your son will learn how to get along with others quite nicely without attending any structured program for toddlers.

If you have further questions or would like to discuss your concerns at greater length, don’t hesitate to give our staff counselors a call. They’d be happy to speak with you and offer some practical suggestions over the phone.



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