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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

What should I do when my 2 1/2-year-old won’t share her toys with our 8-month-old?

Q: What should I do when my 2 1/2-year-old won’t share her toys with our 8-month-old?

A: Sibling rivalry usually heats up once the younger child is crawling and getting into the older one’s stuff. I think about my own son’s shocked (and furious) face the first time his 6-month-old sister reached out and swatted his carefully-constructed block tower.

Rather than dreading these moments of conflict between your children, consider them opportunities to help them learn critical skills—in this case, conflict resolution.  The first step is prevention. While it is important for both of your children to learn to share, it is reasonable that they have some toys they don’t have to let the other play with. This allows you to help them set some boundaries, which gives them a sense of control. You can help your toddler choose a few toys that are special to her that she can play with on her own (such as in her room or when her brother is sleeping.)

When a conflict happens, validate how your daughter is feeling: You get so mad when your brother wants to play with your toys. It’s hard to share. Then, help her empathize with her brother: He just wants to explore and play with you. He doesn’t mean to make you mad. Feeling understood and being able to put themselves in other’s shoes helps children move on to the next step—finding solutions.

Brainstorm with your older child ways to work it out with her younger sibling. The more she is involved in solving the problem, the more likely the solution is to work. For example, when your son reaches out and grabs the ball your daughter is bouncing, you can suggest that you and your daughter find another ball for him to play with. You can also help her think about ways her brother can participate. You might offer to read stories to your son while she builds her block tower. Then give him the job of being in charge of knocking it down, with your daughter’s permission, of course.

Also keep in mind that it is also important for your daughter to have some time to play on her own without worrying that her brother will “mess things up.”

Finally, look for ways your children can have fun together. You can give your baby maracas to shake while your daughter plays the xylophone. In the car, the two of them can play peek-a-boo or make funny faces at each other.  It’s these loving, daily moments (including the very normal conflicts that happen and are resolved) that add up to a lifelong friendship.

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