Toddler playing in sandboxHere’s a really simple real-mom solution. When two toddlers or preschoolers are fighting over a toy, give them a chance to work it out themselves; if it looks like they’re about to come to blows, step in and ask the kid who has the toy (and, by extension, his caretaker), “Is it ok if you take a turn now, and then Joey plays with it in five minutes?”

The Important Part

Make sure that the first kid gives the toy to the second kid in five minutes—even if the second kid seems to have forgotten about it by then.

Use your watch, or the timer on your cell phone, to make sure that exactly five minutes have passed. Then, if it’s your kid who currently has the toy, tell him, “Ok, Gavin, it’s been five minutes. Let’s give Joey a turn.” Both of you go over to Kid #2 and give him the toy. If your kid throws a fit, you can repeat the exercise, asking the other child, “Is it ok if Gavin has another turn in five minutes?”

If it’s another kid who has the toy first, when five minutes have passed, don’t be shy about going up to that child (and caretaker) and saying, “Is it ok if Gavin has a turn now?”

It’s important to enforce the exchange—even if the toy-less one has become interested in something else. If you don’t, what if your child seems to have forgotten about the toy in five minutes’ time, but then 15 minutes have passed and she remembers it, at which point a third child is now playing with it? She’ll feel duped and won’t be so quick to believe you next time. Worse, she’ll be more likely to adopt a better-get-what-I-can-now attitude.

What happens if you ask the other kid if your child can have a turn in five minutes, and the child says no? I ask the caretaker directly; usually, he or she is down with it and happy to have a solution. But, occasionally, you get a doozy.

I was at the town playground a while ago with another mom from my 3-year-old’s swim class. Her son Justin had picked up all the diggers in the sandbox and wouldn’t let my son, Franklin, play with any of them. He asked if he could have a turn with one of them, and Justin screamed, “No!” Justin’s mom made no move to intervene, and Franklin’s plea of “Just one?” was becoming increasingly belligerent. An all-out war was about to erupt. So I asked Justin if Franklin could have a turn in five minutes. His mom answered, “I’m sorry, but I just know he won’t give it up in five minutes.” If that happens to you, you might want to reconsider setting up a future playdate with such company!

Have you had a similar situation? How did you handle it, and what was the outcome?