Our sons are always fighting when they meet up

crybabyQ. My son is 21 months old and is generally a happy little man. He has a few friends from creche and plays quite well with each of them. A good friend of mine also has a 21-month-old boy, but whenever we meet up the two boys end up waging war over one toy or another. We have tried to let them work it out, but it doesn’t tend to end well with the weaker of the two becoming a consistent victim and the stronger constantly in trouble. When we try to intervene we seem to be constantly in on top of them, smothering both their play and making our outing a bit pointless. How do we help these two learn to get along a bit better? They have been the best of friends in the past.

A. From the ages of one to two years, children’s play is mainly driven by their own wishes and needs. The focus is on “what’s mine” and learning to “own” things and at this age children do not yet know how to share. If a 21 month old allows another child to take a toy, it is likely because he has lost interest in it or is distracted by something else rather than that he has made a decision to share it. Though the elements of social play can start a little earlier, it is only when they reach the age of three and older do they begin to really understand how to share and to enjoy reciprocal social play with other children.

As a result, when two 21-month-old children are asked to play with one another there is likely to be conflict as both are at the same stage and don’t yet have the skills to resolve clash of wills by themselves. In fact, the situation would be easier if the playmate was an older child, who was more able to share and to adapt their play to a young child.

You would expect, therefore, that your son is likely to need support and guidance to play with the other child on your social outings. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to set this up. The key is to be able to multi-task when you meet your friend, both attending to the adult conversation and keeping a close eye on the boys’ playing, offering periodic positive attention to keep them on track.

When two 21 month olds play in the same room, their interaction is likely to be a mixture of solitary and parallel play. They are engaging in solitary play when they do their own thing with separate toys and don’t pay much attention to one another. If this is the case and they are both happy, then you might have a minute’s peace!

They engage in parallel play when they play close to one another, maybe even with similar toys but only intermittently pay attention to one another. If this is the case it is important to be close by and “tuned in” as problems could arise. A conflict might emerge when one of them wants the toy the other one has. They may need help to resolve this dispute.

You can say, “Let’s ask Paul nicely for the ball.” If the answer is yes, you can praise the positive sharing and if it is no, you can say, “Paul is playing now”, and distract the child with something else – “You can play with the teddies instead”. In this way you encourage sharing but also respect a child’s right not to decide. If they both want a toy that can be divided, then you can model good sharing skills and say, “Let’s share out the Lego bricks – there’s plenty for everyone.”

In addition, be very careful about taking a child’s side in a dispute or making a judgment about who is at fault. Taking the side of one child, makes the other child resent them and much less likely to play well again. If they do get into a row, simply intervene and separate them for a moment without taking a side. You can say something like, “Come on now, let’s all be kind to one another”, and give them a little space from each other before setting up the play again.

Often parents get trapped into only attending to the children when they are rowing and this can make the rows more frequent as they seek the parents’ attention in this way. Instead, make sure to spend a few minutes supporting them in their play. It can be useful to sit in between them watching carefully, commenting on and encouraging what they are doing.

As they get older you can teach them to positively play with one another by noticing any small steps they make towards this – “You are watching Paul’s tower” or “That’s nice, you gave Paul a brick” or “You are waiting your turn – good boy.” The key to avoiding problems is to get in early with your positive attention before a conflict emerges. For example, you might spot your son enviously looking at his friend’s Play-Doh and about to grab it. You can jump in early and distract him by saying something like, “Look, you can build the tower here” or “There’s more dough over here.”

Your son is only beginning the long process of learning how to share with and play with other children. At 21 months, toddlers do not yet know how to share and are beginning to learn to play with other children. Only slowly do they learn to appreciate the feelings of others and to understand social skills, and this learning continues into late childhood and beyond. This means that during your social outings to meet your friend you might have to multi-task and spend some of the time supporting the two boys playing well together. If you want a longer and more in-depth chat with your friend, then you might have to meet separately at another time and without the boys.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2010.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.