Q&A: When do babies share?

Erika writes:

"I have an eight month old boy who will most likely be an onlychild. Our nanny who watches him two days a week has a son about 6 months older than my G. My hope was he would be a bit of a surrogate sibling and would head off any spoiled-only-child-itis thing.
Now, cut to how we play with G. We sit with him, pick up a toy, which he then of course wants to play with, so we hand it to him. Seems like the rational thing to do, right? That's the main reason we picked up the toy, and what grown up is going to withhold a toy from an 8 month old?
So here is where I'm a bit concerned. We had some friends over whose baby is about the same age as ours. Every time he would pick up a toy to play with, G would want it. At this point, I don't think there is any obnoxiousness intended on his part, of course. He's playing with this little boy exactly the way we allow (encourage?) him to play with us. But, of course, intentions aside, what he's doing is obnoxious.
So...how and when do you teach children how to share and not be grabby? The most 'logical' thing that came to mind was not to just hand toys over to him if I pick one up and he shows an interest. But that just seems weird. And while I know he's a bit young for the concept of sharing, I'd rather start while he's young and malleable than when I have a head strong 2 year old on my hands who has never been introduced to the concept of sharing.
Any thoughts? Are more closely supervised play dates the only really good answer?"
This question means that this week I've hit the trifecta of Things We Worry Our Kids Will Never Do: Sleeping, Eating, and Sharing.

So far I've reassured you that your child will sleep. S/he will eat. The sharing? Well, I think that's a tougher one. I mean, I'm 32, and I'm not even all that great at sharing. (I'm not joking--I often hide delicious foods like chocolate and ice cream from my son so I don't have to share them with him.) I think it's a much tougher thing to master than just sleeping through the night.

People will tell you that a kid should be able to share at age 2, but it's not exactly true. Kids do know the word "share" at age 2, but most of them think that share means that someone else lets them have something. "I want to share the ball" means "I want you to give me your ball." (I always found this hilarious, because it's such a great example of being able to see the wheels turning in your child's head. But of course I had to squelch my laughter and reinforce what actual sharing meant. Sometimes it's a drag being the grownup.)

By the time they're close to 3 they understand it, but they don't really want to do it, unless it's for a special friend (or something they don't really want).

So basically what I'm saying is that there's no chance on earth than an 8-month-old should be able to share. A child that age isn't even remotely close to being able to understand the concept.

Your son sounds completely normal and on target for his age. When babies under 15 months get together, they alternate between grabbing things out of the other kid's hand, and grabbing the other kid's hair and yanking hard. (OK, sometimes they throw in some drooling and biting for good measure. And if their nails haven't been clipped within the last 10 minutes they'll probably end up doing some scratching, too.) It's really awful, except for the fact that the other kid doesn't realize that your son is being rude, because they just don't have any social sense yet. He knows that the toy was in his hand and now it's not, but he doesn't really know that G took it. (The developmental spurt that allow kid to understand a sequence of events doesn't even happen until the baby is closer to 10 months, and they can't understand any kind of more complicated program of events until shortly after a year, according to The Wonder Weeks.) So we adults look at it as a horrible interaction, but the kids are just so thrilled to be with other babies that they don't even care.

The task for a child's first year is to learn to trust. When you play with G and give him what he asks for (remember that for babies there's no difference between want and need), you're teaching him not only to trust you, but to trust the world. It's what's supposed to happen. You might want to mix up the games by putting him on his tummy sometimes and getting him to reach for things he wants (unless you want to prevent him from learning to crawl), but that's just a developmental thing, and has nothing to do with sharing or "spoiling." (If your baby doesn't like tummy time, check out SparkPlugDance.org for some great ideas on how to make it fun, and a clear explanation of why it's important.)

The best way to "teach" a baby that young about sharing (which is a subset of politeness) is to model polite behavior in your home and outside it. "Please" and "thank you" and "I'm going to the kitchen. Would you like something?" to your spouse and G will let G know that being polite is what people do. "Thank you" and "Excuse me" and "How are you?" to the bus driver and grocery checker and librarian shows that it's not just for people you love. You'll be surprised at how quickly G catches on to politeness and hospitality rituals--lots of kids start saying "thank you" as one of their first sets of words or signs. Once you've got a kid who's polite at an age-appropriate level, teaching about sharing just becomes more about hospitality and less about rules a kid has to follow to gain approval. Which means that you'll have a 3-year-old who still occasionally grabs other kids' toys (age-appropriate) but also invites other kids to your house to play and is a better host than Hugh Heffner.

The play date thing can be tough. El Pequeño is 8 months, and it's almost painful to watch him with other babies that age. They kind of swarm all over each other like little lobsters, grabbing at everything they can reach and sucking and teething on each other. The tips I have to make it easier are: have playdates with other parents who also understand that babies are completely uncivilized at that age so they don't get upset if some grabbing happens, have a huge pile of toys so if one child grabs one away you can quickly trade in another one, and remember that some animal crackers or Veggie Booty can solve a lot of conflicts instantly.

Also, FWIW, I don't think only children are any more spoiled than other kids. Manhattan is probably the capital of only children, so we know a bunch of them here. If you're a good parent and you set appropriate boundaries for your child, your child won't end up spoiled whether or not s/he has siblings. If you don't teach your child appropriate behavior s/he will be spoiled even with a bunch of siblings. So I wouldn't do anything special to try to head off your son's being spoiled. Just treat him with love and respect, and teach him appropriate behavior, and he'll grow from a cheerful barbarian baby into the kind of 10-year-old strangers compliment you on. I think you're doing exactly the right thing, and G is going to turn out to be a well-mannered person, even though he'll have some normal hooliganish bumps along the way.