OPINION | PARENTING: Limit toys in play for toddlers under 3 years old

Q Is it too much to expect a 2-year-old to pick up his toys? Our little fella, when we tell him to pick up his toys, just stands there and looks at us. We've tried making a game of it. We've tried punishing. We've tried bribing him with ice cream. Nothing has worked. At most, he will pick up one toy and put it where we tell him, but that's it. Any ideas?

A Consider that by age 2, the typical child has already acquired more than 50 toys. Under the circumstances, "play" consists of making a mess.

Nothing truly creative is going on, and furthermore, telling a toddler to pick up a chaos of toys that are scattered all over the floor is akin to someone telling you to re-park 50 automobiles in a parking garage. It's daunting, which is why when you tell your son to pick up his toys, he just stares at you. He depends on you to make sense of the world and you're making no sense at all!

Even expecting that only 10 playthings be picked up and properly put away is too overwhelming for the average 2-year-old. Keep in mind that toddlers have difficulty focusing on tasks that do not engage the imagination, which includes picking up a mess of toys. Punishing, bribing and trying to turn this into fun and games are exercises in futility.

The solution involves managing the situation such that the task is doable. That can mean only one thing: giving a toddler access to only the number of toys he can, and will, pick up. And how many is that? No more than one, initially.

Set up a "toy lending library" and allow your son to "check out" no more than one at a time. The library ought to be maintained in some relatively secure place, at least until your son understands the routine.

He begins by selecting a toy. When he's done playing with that one, he simply brings it to you and exchanges it for another one. Eventually, the number of toys he can check out at any given time can increase to two, then three. But until a child is at least 36 months of age, three should be the limit.

Parents who use this approach discover that a toddler needs very few toys. Three is more than enough to keep a toddler occupied throughout the day. It's certainly paradoxical, but a toddler can play imaginatively with one or two toys for a much longer period than he can play with 10. At three toys, a toddler's ability to make choices becomes overwhelmed, at which point he begins to whine and do other annoying things.

Perhaps best of all, by promoting longer periods of independent play, the "toy library" makes it possible for mom and dad to enjoy relatively long periods of uninterrupted time. Can't beat that.

Write to family psychologist John Rosemond at The Leadership Parenting Institute, 420 Craven St., New Bern, N.C. 28560 or email questions@rosemond.com. Due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.