Helping the child who has difficulty sharing friends

DEAR POLLY, Five-year-old Gracie is always so possessive of whichever child she is playing with at the moment! She is especially possessive of her best friend and won't allow anyone else to play with Tanya. Gracie can be very unkind to other children, who she sees as "interfering" with her friendships. Any ideas as to how I should handle this issue?

You've probably noticed the same thing I have-some children are unselective about their play partners, and others have best friends. I've known pairs of children who are inseparable, who really never want a third party to join them. Others seem to really enjoy group play. We need to respect the fact that children, like adults, don't all have the same preferences in the realm of social life, any more than they all have the same favorite activities. Here are some things I would try in the situation with Gracie:

  • Acknowledge Grade's preference for social interaction. When an incident arises, you might say, "I know you really like to play with Tanya. It's wonderful that you and Tanya like each other so much and always have so much fun together."
  • Compliment Gracie on those infrequent occasions when you see her playing with another child. Say, "I'm so happy to see you and Nancy playing together. What you're doing looks like fun. Sometimes it's a good idea to play with a different person, isn't it?"
  • Just as you plan for whole group, small group, and individual activities every day, plan times each day when Grade and the friend she wants to play with can have some special time together. Also, plan a daily small group activity chosen because it's likely to engage and engross Gracie and a few children who want to play with her. You can say, "Lucky you, you all get a turn to try making sock puppets." Focus your comments on the activity, not the participants.

We all know that schedules and routines help children understand our expectations. You can use this principle to foster Gracie's social development. Say, "Now it's time for you and Tanya to play privately," or, "Now it's time for you and Nancy and Tessa to play at the water table." When a child can see that we are responding to her needs and preferences, she will usually work with our other wishes.