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My 2-year-old son is in daycare with several other boys. He seems to spend the most time with the two boys who are closest in age to him (and who are also the most consistent in attending).

One of these two boys (the one closest in age to my son, being only one month younger, who we'll call "Joe") is clearly very attached to my son. He gets extremely excited when my son arrives, and sometimes gets very upset when my son has to leave. The moment we walk in the door, he runs over to greet us.

Which is actually part of the problem.

Joe has some developmental delays (he was several months premature, and is still completely non-verbal), and has some trouble understanding social boundaries (perhaps even more so than is normal for a two-year-old). As a result, he tends to immediately run up to my son, get right in front of him before we can even get my son's coat off, and starts reaching for whatever toys my son has brought with him for the day.

My son picked up the concept of sharing fairly well maybe 6 months ago or more. Joe is still working on the concept, although he's very much improved over the past couple of weeks/months. Most days he starts off by handing my son whatever toy he's brought with, and only then reaching for what my son may be holding. Usually my son will share his toys in return, although he always shows a preference for the older boy who isn't nearly as pushy (if my son brings 3-4 toys, he'll give the older boy several, and give Joe only one, and only after sharing with the older boy first).

All of this sounds well enough; however, my son has pretty clearly demonstrated that he doesn't like Joe's behavior at times (which is fair enough). The problem stems from how my son expresses that.

For a while, my son would respond to Joe running over to greet him with "No! Go away, Joe!", while holding up a hand, palm facing Joe's face. I told him repeatedly that that wasn't very nice, and explained that while I know he doesn't like that Joe is so pushy, all he has to do is say "wait, Joe, wait!". That, coupled with the daycare provider consistently telling both other boys to give my son some room when he comes in, seemed to have helped.

However, I have noticed that my son frequently isn't very nice to Joe. Sometimes he'll yell "No, Joe!" and point angrily at Joe. Sometimes I'll see him sharing with the other boy, but refusing to share with Joe. Most recently, I saw him put his face right in front of Joe's and growl loudly at him (!).

None of this seems to deter Joe, or even upset him, but it bothers me. I understand that Joe doesn't respect boundaries as much as my son would like, and I think it is appropriate that my son stand up for himself, but I feel there may be more constructive ways to express it, even at his age (my son has a pretty good grasp of language for his age, and regularly uses fairly complex sentences; sometimes he will use sentences of a dozen words or more).

The thing is, I'm pretty sure my son likes Joe. Almost every day when we ask him what he did that day, he says he played with Joe. He almost never mentions the other boys, and when we ask him if he had a good time playing with Joe, the answer is almost always an enthusiastic "yeah!". Of course, this is frequently followed up by complaints about Joe "taking his toys".

The daycare provider has told me several times that the problems we see in the morning almost always resolve themselves within a few minutes, and they (all three) seem to get along very well throughout the day.

Is it possible to get my son to be nicer (no yelling/growling/comments like "go away!, etc.)? How? Should I be looking to fix this?

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4 Answers

First of all - kudos to you, your daycare and your son. He has clearly learned some restraint, in that he is using his words instead of pushing or hitting. From this point several other strategies become possible.

Verbalize emotions: The idea here is that if your son can better explain how he feels it may make him feel better about things and might make more of an impact on Joe. Statements like "Joe, I don't like it when you rush me", or "It makes me mad when you do this" etc.

Attempt negotiation: At this age kids begin to learn about sharing and taking turns. Try coaching your son to explain to Joe who's turn it is and waiting for your own turn. Or alternatively he can help Joe find a similar toy to play with or offer to trade one toy for another.

Ultimately what you want to teach your son is a difficult and worthy concept - how to be kind. I know that kindness is not always rewarded,and sometimes not even deserved. Thus conversations with my sons boil down to the idea that we should be kind to others just because it's the right thing to do. If he knows this is what you believe then it will influence his behavior just because he loves and admires you.

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Preventing the conflict (I want to grab that toy, I don't want my toy grabbed while I'm taking my coat off) is generally more successful with toddlers than telling them not to react to conflict.

It seems like the issue is with that arrival transition, and specifically with the toys your boy has brought for the day. Perhaps if those toys were in something opaque, like a small backpack, and your son handed you that backpack while he got his coat off etc, there would be less emphasis on those toys during the greeting. There would also be motivation for Joe to back off if the toys didn't get unpacked until the rest of the arrival routine (coat off and hung up, hat somewhere, mitts somewhere, switch to inside shoes...) is complete. Once he's ready and settled you hand him the backpack. Maybe he takes the toys out and you take the empty backpack with you, or maybe the backpack stays too. Either could work.

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In a word, no. Two-year-olds don't have "friends" in any rational sense of the word, and only a dim grasp of what being "nice" even means. In fact, your son is already being comparatively nice, since many kids his age would resort to violence if somebody tries to take their toys.

But two-year-olds are very good at observing, imitating and getting what they want, so odds are that without you doing anything at all, your son will figure out what works best in getting Joe to back off a bit, and Joe will figure out that he'll get more what he wants (toys) faster if he doesn't get into your son's face. Remember, as a parent your job is not to solve your kids' problems, it's to get them into a position where they can solve them by themselves.

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+1. "Remember, as a parent your job is not to solve your kids' problems, it's to get them into a position where they can solve them by themselves." - I know this, and feel like it is patently obvious, but sometimes I catch myself having ignored this; it can be hard since I want what's best for him now! –  Beofett Feb 22 '13 at 14:45
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That's a tough one. In a way, I think your son's behavior is very normal. He may like Joe very much, but he probably feels attacked by Joe's intense approach in the mornings (and who wouldn't be?). As adults, we are able to understand that while Joe's behavior is not appropriate, he's acting like this because he hasn't been able yet to learn appropriate responses in social situations. But your son is only two. He's old enough to realize that he doesn't like being approached like this in the mornings, but not old enough yet to understand that Joe only means well.

What is good about your son't behavior is that he's able to stand up for himself. I think the best you can do at this point is to keep explaining to your son that while it's okay not to like being approached like this, the best answer is to say "wait, Joe". With time, he will understand.

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