My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is, like most people her age, a character. On good days (when we are well-rested and have access to our sense of humor), my husband and I call her “spunky,” “bright,” and “determined.” The rest of the time we call her “The Dictator.”
Like most intense and creative people, she throws herself fully into her passions. Her current infatuation is building sandcastles. Yes, to the untrained eye they look like shapeless lumps of sand, but to our little architect they are majestic sculptures. Her sand toys– a couple plastic shovels, a small rake, and a Blue Bucket (please note: I am not referring to the inferior yellow bucket from our backyard; nor the other blue bucket with a miniscule crack in the bottom, but the One and Only Blue Bucket) are the tools of her noble trade. To her they are not just doodads purchased at the 99 Cent Store. They are indispensable gear, always riding along with us in the van, ready at a moment’s notice for any architectural emergencies that arise.
So, for my daughter, playing in the sandbox is the ultimate joy of each day. For me, it’s almost relaxing to watch her happily engrossed in digging and pouring and molding. I say “almost” because while she is busy creating, I still have to focus on my 12-month-old. But hey, chasing one toddler versus two is as close to a vacation as I get.
The other reason I say “almost” is because of the Curse of the Playground. Inevitably, another child comes along, wanting to “share” my child’s toys.
In an ideal world, my two-and-a-half -year-old would smile at the newcomer and say, “Sure, plop down next to me and let’s build together! Here’s my Blue Bucket– enjoy!” But anyone who has a two-year-old knows that the world is not ideal. Most toddlers have not mastered sharing, nor could they even be considered “apprentice sharers.” They pretty much live in the world of “Mine, mine, mine!”
So, when a child approaches and asks to use her sand toys, my daughter’s response is almost always an emphatic “No!”
Before you start telling yourself complacently “My little Jayden has been sharing since she came out of the womb,” I want to assure you that I have tried every technique the experts recommend to encourage sharing. I praise my daughter when she does share, even for one millisecond. I constantly model sharing, even if it’s the last cookie on my plate. I sing songs from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that encourage generosity (“You can take a turn, and then you’ll give it back . . . “).
I ask her ten dozen times a day to share with her baby sister, and she actually does it, a fraction of the time.
I know that someday my little girl WILL share. But child development experts agree that before the age of four, most children simply do not understand the concept of sharing. Yes, it is something we parents must work on and encourage and model and explain . . . but we cannot reasonably expect two- and three- year olds to share willingly. We should expect them to have occasional tantrums and frequent toy squabbles. Which brings me to the sandbox dilemma.
Now, it is only natural that other children want to borrow my child’s sand toys. I don’t blame them one bit, not even if they waddle over and grab Blue Bucket and run off. It’s a toddler thing. They don’t know any better. But, in my humble opinion, many parents could help diffuse the sandbox toy squabble situation a little more. From what I’ve noticed over the years, there are four kinds of parents at the sandbox.
DISCLAIMER: Because I am a mother, I know we all tend to get a little emotional and defensive about our parenting skills, so I want to point out that these are merely caricatures. So please laugh at these descriptions, even if you see a little of yourself in them, and do not bombard me with angry comments. 🙂
Type 1: The Spectator.
This is the parent who sits within sight of her child, but not within earshot. The Spectator is often engaged in another activity, like playing with her phone making a crucial business-related call, chatting with a friend, or reading a book. Now and then she looks over to check on her child, but she cannot hear a word of the conversation that is going on:
Her child: Can I play with those toys?
My child: No! No! No!
Me: (addressing my child) Can you share your toys? Please?
My child: No! No! No!
Me: (addressing her child) Sweetie, I’m sorry, but she’s not ready to share her sand toys right now.
Her child: Can I play with those toys? (Reaches for Blue Bucket)
My child: Noooooooo! That’s MY bucket! Don’t take it! Nooooooo!
Me: Honey, I’m sorry. She doesn’t want to share right now.
Her child: But . . . can I play with those toys?
The Spectator: Looks up from phone and smiles from across the playground as if to say, “Isn’t it nice when kids play so nicely together?”
Type 2: The Lecturer.
This is the parent who is within sight and earshot of her child . . . but you wish she wasn’t. She observes her child trying to take your child’s toy– and the hysterical fit that ensues –and decides to fix the problem with a sanctimonious speech.
Sometimes the lecture is delivered to your child: “Honey, Jayden just wants to share with you, see? Let Jayden use your little bucket for a few minutes. Friends share. Look! (Jayden hands my daughter her own shovel) Jayden is sharing with you! Good sharing, Jayden!”
At this point, my two year old looks at The Lecturer with incredulity because even a toddler knows that it’s easy for Jayden to “share” when they’re not even his toys.
Or, the lecturer will address her comments to me: “You know, kids need to learn to share sooner or later. It’s better to start when they’re young. I always reinforce to Jayden that he LOVES to share, and he does. He always shares. Also, if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s best to nip these tantrums in the bud. Boy, your daughter’s a feisty one! I think a little time-out on the park bench would do her some good. Come on, Jayden, you can share this blue bucket now.”
Me: would like to slap own forehead with palm and/or The Lecturer’s forehead with Blue Bucket, but am too busy going into Code Red mode to control daughter’s nuclear reaction.
Type 3: The Statue.
This parent, like The Lecturer, is present while the whole ugly scene unfolds. However, she does not lecture anyone. In fact, she does not say a single word or do a single thing. When little Jayden grabs Blue Bucket and my daughter begins her meltdown, The Statue just stares, interestedly, as if she’s taking notes for a psychological experiment on Development Behaviors at the Playground. She sees me scrambling desperately to diffuse the situation, to calm my two-year-old, to restrain my 12-month-old from eating a twig, and to persuade Jayden to release Blue Bucket . . . and she does nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.
Type 4: Every Mother’s Friend.
This parent sees the situation and calmly takes action. She’s a trooper: she knows what it’s like to have a toddler who doesn’t want to share. She does not judge you or your child because she knows that we live in a crazy, imperfect world and that most toddlers are selfish by nature. She does not give any condescending looks or lectures. She doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. She simply tells her child matter-of-factly, “Jayden, it looks like she’s not ready to share right now. Let’s go down that big slide over there instead!”
As they walk away into the sunset, Blue Bucket is in its rightful place, my little architect continues to build happily, and the whole Universe smiles upon Every Mother’s Friend’s insight and understanding. God bless you, wise parent. I hope to see you soon at the sandbox.