- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

What’s the most effective way to get young children, ages 2 and 3, to share, and what should I do when not sharing escalates into violence? I work with children this age in a day care center, and this is my biggest problem.

A: It is not at all unusual for children to have problems sharing until well into the fourth year of life. Why non-sharing is typical of children below age 4 is anyone’s best guess, mine being that during late toddlerhood, a child begins to grasp the concept of private property. “Mine” is the natural consequence of this realization. Furthermore, refusing to share enables the child to exercise a greater degree of control over his immediate environment, including his playmates, while at the same time clearly asserting his identity.

Unfortunately, some of these non-sharers tend to become aggressive toward other children who try to play with “their” toys. Needless to say, their aggressive outbursts are not consistent with standard rules of engagement, much less the Geneva Accords. The toddler is undersocialized; therefore, when he or she strikes out aggressively toward another child, the assault is likely to look distinctly savage to the civilized onlooker.

The first problem — simple, garden-variety non-sharing — can be solved slowly by parents and other caregivers who are firm in their expectation that children share and who provide the disciplinary structure within which sharing can be learned. One way to do this is to use a simple kitchen timer to signal when the toy in question has to be exchanged. In most cases, once children have learned to take turns in this fashion, they begin spontaneous sharing in almost no time.

The answer to a toddler who hits, kicks, pinches and bites is immediately to remove the child from the play group, even if it’s a group of two, until he or she is ready to apologize and share. If an aggressive incident occurs twice in the same play session, I recommend confining the child, even at the tender age of 3, to his or her room for the remainder of the day and to impose an early bedtime. If the aggression occurs in a play group, I recommend separating the child from the other children in the group for the remainder of the session.

To those who would say separating a child from the group from, say, midmorning (when the second incident hypothetically occurs) until his parent picks him up at the end of the day is too much, I respond thusly: If one wants the aggression to stop, which should be everyone’s aim, and quickly, the consequence must be memorable. It must create a strong mental imprint that will begin to inhibit aggressive outbursts. Meanwhile, adults definitely should use the opportunity to counsel the child on nonviolent means of handling similar future situations.

In the final analysis, however, nipping behavior of this sort in the proverbial bud requires parents and teachers who absolutely will not tolerate it. So, yes, when aggression takes place at preschool and the child is 3 or older, parents should follow through with a punishment at home. Some research indicates that when parents do not take strong disciplinary action concerning aggressive behavior when it first emerges, the problem can grow from molehill into mountain in no time.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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