Your toddler’s language development advances the formation of empathy and first friendships. During the second half of the third year, language becomes more and more of a social tool. Playdates give your child the opportunity to communicate with other children her own age—instead of constantly talking to adults.
Social language with other children begins with a marking out of territory. Your toddler is becoming her own person. And to forge her own identity, she needs to lay claim to what’s (at least in her own mind) rightfully hers: her toys, her bed, her home, and her mommy and daddy.
When another toddler trespasses on this territory, your child will yell, “Mine!” The other child will scream, “Go away!” You might as well get used to mediating these territorial battles (“Mine!” “No, mine!” “Mine!”). They will be played out for several months—and will recur from time to time for many years. Though it certainly doesn’t seem like it, these skirmishes are just the first stage in a process that will teach your child how to share and how to be fair.
As the year goes on, your toddler’s friendships will probably get stronger, but even the closest of two-year-old friends still need consistent adult supervision. Left to their own devices, your child and a friend will almost certainly be fighting soon about some perceived unfairness or refusal to share.
Share and Share Alike
Your child may be more willing to share with a playmate if you allow him to put away several toys that he just can’t bear to share. Knowing that his most cherished possessions are safely stowed away may give your child a greater push toward generosity with the rest of his toys.
Toddlers do not share without prompting. It is by no means the natural behavior of a selfish, self-centered two-year-old—and that’s the only kind of two-year-old there is. So if you want your child to begin sharing, you need to teach him how to do it—and repeatedly encourage him to share. Try to be patient with your child as he learns (and repeatedly forgets) and relearns the value of sharing.
If your child—and you—are hosting a playdate, try to prepare him in advance. Tell your toddler that you expect him to share his toys. But stress this point: Just because the visiting friend plays with the toys doesn’t mean the other toddler gets to keep them. Your child may feel more secure throughout the playdate if you keep reminding him that his toys will still be his when the playdate is over. It may help if you offer (in advance) to replace any toys that your guest might break—and then of course keep your promise if anything does.
Oddly enough, helping your child and a guest share fairly and peacefully begins with getting the toddlers to understand the difference between possession and ownership. On playdates, no matter who actually owns a particular toy, possession is nine-tenths of the law. This doesn’t mean your guest can take your child’s toys home with her. But it does mean that your child cannot be allowed to grab the toy away from the other toddler—and vice versa, of course.
If your toddler does grab a toy (or food or anything else) from another child, you’ll need to step in immediately. Quickly and firmly, but without anger (if possible), return the toy to the child who had it first and tell your child, “No grabbing!” Then remind your child that if he wants something that someone else is already playing with, he must:
- wait his turn;
- ask for your help in setting up turns;
- ask the other child nicely and get permission to use the toy; or
- offer the other child a trade so that both children end up with something they want to play with.
Don’t make playdates for toddlers last too long. Even if the parent of the other child stays, one to two hours is probably close to the limit for any two toddlers, at least at first.
If the other child will not under any conditions part with the toy that he has, or if your child cannot wait a second longer for his turn to begin, you’ll need to turn down the heat even more. Though two-year-olds are not nearly as distractable as one-year-olds, you may still succeed in distracting your child. Try shifting his attention to another toy or game—and if necessary, to another place.
If a particular toy becomes the sole object of full-scale warfare: take the toy away; bring out a duplicate (if you have a close enough match); or call an end to the playdate.