“No, Daddy! No touching. Maggie is MY sister!” When Hazel Miller was two, she became a big sister. No one, not even her dad, was allowed to hold baby Maggie as far as Hazel was concerned.
Toddlers can be fiercely possessive of the objects and people in their lives. At a playgroup, if one wants what another has, she’s likely to wrench it from the other child’s hands, and parents then find themselves dealing with a tug-of-war. At the park, a two-year-old sitting on the swing may decide it’s his swing — especially if someone else is interested in having a turn.
“This is a stage, a completely normal and healthy one,” says Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress. “But it can also be annoying for parents, who worry that they need to nip possessive behaviour in the bud, before it develops into unmitigated selfishness.”
For a toddler, possession is everything; having an object in his hands means it’s his. Likewise, if someone dares to pick up his blanket, it may no longer be his — pretty scary for a two-year-old. In time, kids develop a more complex understanding of what ownership means — that your doll is still yours even when someone else is playing with it. Sharing can’t happen until kids make this cognitive leap, usually by age three or four, says Arnall.
How should a parent respond? Here are three scenarios and some advice from Arnall:
1) Two-year-old Jake is playing with a shovel in the sand tray at playgroup. Ariel sees it, points to it and wails. Jake backs off, with the shovel clutched to his chest. Ariel then makes a grab for it. A tussle ensues, with both kids holding tight and screaming. Jake wins and Ariel is distraught.
“I always ask parents, ‘How long is a turn?’” says Arnall. Our instinct as parents is to grab the shovel out of Jake’s hands and give it to Ariel, while saying something like “You have to share!” A better option is to encourage Jake by saying, “Ariel would like a turn.” “Given the choice about giving it up, kids are more apt to do so,” says Arnall. “But if you grab it away and give it to the other child, you send the message that grabbing the thing you want is OK.” If Jake decides he’s not finished with the shovel, you can tell Ariel that she can have a turn soon, and then find another shovel for her to use.
2) You’re at your sister’s house and her one-year-old is sitting on your lap. When your toddler catches sight of the two of you, she runs over and tries to push the baby away. “My Mommy!” she says.
“Give the baby back to your sister,” says Arnall, “and cuddle your child.” She’s in distress because she feels displaced in your affections. That’s nothing short of a disaster for a toddler, says Arnall, which is why she needs to be comforted and reassured. It’s tough for parents because the behaviour seems so extreme, but it’s important to recognize that a child who does this is actually expressing a healthy attachment to you. “If she continues to feel secure about your affection for her, she will grow to accept other people in your life,” explains Arnall.
3) During playtime with another toddler, your child brings you his yellow dump truck and says, “You hold it, Mommy.” It’s clear he’s doing so because he doesn’t want his guest to play with it.
“Everybody has special things they don’t want to share,” says Arnall. In this situation, kids also recognize that adults have the power to keep things away from other kids. It’s best to respect your child’s sense of ownership. The next time you schedule a playdate, you could ask your son which of his things he’d rather not share and put them away ahead of time.
“It really comes down to patience,” says Arnall. After all, possession, ownership, sharing and lending are complex social interactions that are beyond the brainpower of most toddlers. “They won’t be possessive forever. Recognize that this stage will pass and, in time, toddlers will become a little less territorial, a little more apt to share.”