Share… Wait Your Turn… Don’t Touch… Playdate Rules That Limit Learning (And What To Try Instead)

Ryan and Luis both want to ride a tricycle in the play area at their child care center. Each child begins to pull on the tricycle’s seat, saying, “Mine, mine.” A moment later they both start to cry. Their carer, observing this, moves closer to the children. She bends down on one knee and says, “You both want the tricycle.” The children continue to struggle. Luis falls against the tricycle and makes it move forward a few inches. Ryan stops crying when he sees the tricycle move. Both children start to giggle and begin pushing the tricycle together. (From Your Self Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Alison Johnson)

Magda Gerber’s example of children working through struggles to eventually play together is not an anomaly. I observe these kinds of messy, yet successful exchanges every week in my RIE Parent/ Infant and Toddler classes.  Two recent examples come to mind:

Charlotte, a 7-month-old infant who is already mobile and able to scoot across the floor, approaches Daisy, who has not yet begun to roll and is on her back. I calmly move closer to them and keep my hand near Charlotte’s as she touches Daisy’s tummy. “Charlotte is touching your tummy,” I acknowledge softly to Daisy. When Charlotte begins to apply pressure, I gently guide her hand the tiniest bit. “Touch gently,” I suggest in a soothing voice. I observe that Daisy appears relaxed and seems to enjoy this interaction for the few moments it lasts before Charlotte moves on.

Ben and Arthur, both 2, are holding onto the toy school bus. Ben screams as Arthur manages to pull it away from him. As I move closer to support them, I acknowledge, “You both wanted that and now Arthur has it.” Then I say to Ben with an empathetic nod, “That’s upsetting.” Ben reaches for the bus again as Arthur stands frozen, taking in the situation. Suddenly, he turns and runs with the bus in hand, and Ben chases him. They both screech and laugh as they circle the outdoor deck. Their joyful chase game continues for several minutes. What’s most intriguing (and telling): Ben figures out ways to instigate this game repeatedly each week using different toys, sometimes without any at all. Other children join in the fun when they’re in the mood.

What do you suppose would have happened if we’d prevented Charlotte from touching Daisy; or made Arthur share; or told Ben to wait his turn?

Separation

The immediate effect of don’t touch, who had it first? and wait your turn is separating the children. I realize that might seem like a good idea when they’re struggling — none of us like to see kids uncomfortable — but isn’t our goal for playdates, playgroups and preschool to encourage children to learn to play together? Why bother to arrange social situations if we won’t allow the children to socialize in their own ways?

In the almost 20 years I’ve been observing infants and toddlers, I’ve noticed that learning to play together is exactly what the children are trying to do. However, this doesn’t happen while they’re following our directions to take turns and play separately.

It’s obviously easier to separate two struggling children at the outset of a conflict. However, I feel that the earlier children learn to struggle, negotiate, and get along with others, the better off they’ll be. You may wonder how letting children struggle over a toy teaches them to get along with others. Struggle is a normal part of human relations.                                                                             – Magda Gerber


Focus on “stuff”

Besides encouraging separateness, forcing kids to share (which usually means, You must give that toy to the other child.) or insisting they take turns keeps children focused on the toys or objects rather than engaging with each other. Granted, most children go through possessive phases, but they tend to pass quickly if we calmly accept them.

You may worry that your child’s difficulty sharing means he will become selfish or that it is a negative reflection on your parenting skills. Remember that a toddler’s possessiveness with belongings is a normal phase that will pass.                                  – Magda Gerber

Toddlers and preschoolers can also be inspiringly flexible, forgiving, generous spirits, and they’re usually captivated by other children. So why emphasize his turn or her turn or keeping toys to themselves until they’re done? Children can use their things for as long as they like at home. Perhaps they don’t need to keep the toy every time in social situations.

There was an experience in class one day that I found fascinating. Greta, a strong, elegant, though somewhat reserved 2 year old had always been one to gently offer toys to her peers as a way of connecting. But on this particular day, she was in an unusually possessive mood, maybe because she’d been traveling extensively with her family and needed to regain a sense of control. She took toy after toy from the only other child in class that day, Annie, who is one of the kindest, most peaceful toddlers I have ever known.

Annie seemed to gladly release every toy she’d picked up, which Greta then stacked in a pile on her mother’s lap. Annie seemed relaxed and carefree, while Greta seemed determined and intense. They reminded me of actors improvising. I imagined the director giving each child their role. “Okay, Greta, you have an impulsive need for stuff. You need to possess everything… Annie, you are in a constant state of bliss, nothing bothers you.”

At RIE we have the luxury of allowing these situations to play out. After we’d observed for several minutes, I asked the rhetorical question, “Who do you think had the most power?”

Dependency on adults

The more adults intervene to decide what’s fair and how children’s play should look, the more children are convinced they need them.

The important learning experience is to resolve your problem. Yet, when we see children trying to solve a problem, we don’t let them. We feel they are suffering.                                                 –  Magda Gerber

I can understand the desire for rules and policies:

–          Our rules can end struggles (usually), and we don’t like to see our children struggling

–          One-size-fits-all, go-to solutions can seem easier than observing, assessing, and addressing each situation individually

–          Children learn our rules quickly and can even take pride in them

–          Even if we’d like to try giving our children more breathing room in social situations, friends, family and strangers expect us to follow their rules (more on that below).

In RIE classes we have only one hard and fast rule: no hurting each other. When children are struggling over a toy, we move close to them for support and protection. We prevent hitting, pushing, pinching, biting or head-butting by blocking these actions with our hands or removing a child’s hand from another’s body. We reflect the children’s actions and feelings impartially (as in the examples above). Magda Gerber termed this ‘sportscasting’, and this, along with our patience and acceptance of their feelings, is often all children need to find resolutions.

When children seem stuck and their struggle continues, we offer only the most minimal intervention in order to maximize learning. This means there are times when maybe when she’s done or I can’t let you take more toys from Joe are the responses children need, but our children learn more and build confidence in their problem solving abilities when we take this case by case.

FAQ (I’ve always wanted to do this!):

  1. How can I follow this approach when I’m with parents who expect me to make my child share? If the children seem interested in each other, broach the subject right away with a casual question like, “Do you want me to stop struggles immediately, or give them a chance to work things out?” If the other parent wants  intervention and my child is the instigator, I would, by all means, gently prevent my child from taking a toy, or if it’s too late, I’d ask her if she can give the toy back herself or needs my help. I believe in protecting our children from being perceived as bullies or brats. I would also not allow my child to block the slide or walk up when others want to slide down, cut lines, etc. In these situations, equipment sharing and turn taking are important to teach.
  2. How can I find parents and groups that allow children to work through struggles? You might wish to join a Facebook community like RIE/Mindful Parenting, which offers a parent directory. Or you could form your own playgroup of like-minded parents. HERE are some guidelines.
  3. What about when there’s an age difference as with siblings? I still recommend sportscasting, minimal intervention, acknowledging feelings, and approaching children with a coaching attitude and offering them casual pointers, rather than enforcing rules (other than safety), or being a referee calling the shots. Siblings are going to struggle, and it’s even more essential for them than it is for peers to find a way for their relationship to work. It’s hard but crucial to stay calm and not take sides. (Siblings Without Rivalry is a wonderful guidebook.)
  4. How do I stay calm when children are struggling? Breathe, have faith in the children, and also know how important your demeanor is. When you observe infants and toddlers to the extent that we do at RIE, you can’t help but notice that the feelings of the parents have a major impact. When parents are neutral in these situations, the children don’t see a big problem either and are rarely upset for more than a moment or two (unless they’re tired, teething, hungry, or there’s something else going on). And remember, learning is messy, and it’s always positive for children to express their feelings.

It’s very difficult to watch children tug at a toy, scream and struggle – without intervening. Yet as I did so, I was surprised to see how quickly these conflicts blew over. The children worked through it and soon were busy doing something else. They had a chance to feel and express their real feelings, learn to experience the consequences in the real world, and move on. (A parent’s comment from Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect)

***

I share more about sportscasting, socialization, and the power of minimal interventions in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

(Photo by tiarescott on Flickr)

65 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I was stuck the other day when a young boy pushed my daughter from the chair she was sitting on she fell back and hurt herself and when I gave her a cuddle he took the chair. The mum said you wanted that hair didn’t you? What happens in this instance as he continued to push her over until the chair fell over. I understand the mum was being aware of his feelings but what about his actions? Should they have been spoken about?

    1. I don’t understand the way the mother handled this situation. Safety is always the number one priority. If I was not wise enough to get there in time to stop this action, I would say, “I don’t want you to push. And if my child hurt someone, I would be right there, very apologetic and making sure she was okay. Then I would prevent this from happening again. Did you not feel comfortable protecting your daughter?

      Anyway, this mother’s behavior does not relate to anything I’m suggesting in this post.

      1. I have real concerns about this sportscadting approach in regards to children’s social learning and development.
        All children have the right to feel safe and secure at all times and have the right for adults to do what is best go them.
        The sports casting approach I feel may create further power binaries particularly with dominant personalities and diminish the rights of the child.
        The example the parent above provides is one of those power binaries where a more dominant personality holds power over the other child. Some children and toddlers have not yet developed the self confidence to stand up and negotiate social situations such as the above. I have spent 26 years working in early childhood and can say for certain that not all children are able to manage power binaries without some form of supportive adult intervention.
        If no intervention is made (such as in the example above) then this will perpetuate a social dominance by the boy with out him learning his behaviour was unacceptable. The boys mother should have addressed the social interaction that honoured both children’s rights.
        I also feel that if adult intervention does not occur on behalf of toddlers and children who are still emerging in their esteem and identity then a positive sense of self will not develop and the other child will develop a negative sense of self where they learn it is okay to do as I please. This is a false social conception and one not viewed as tolerable in society.
        If you are wishing to see social development through a sports casting lens then I would remain wary and considerable of the development of each child’s sense of self. Dominant personalities will always remain dominant and passive personalities will remain passive.

        Just offering an alternative perspective here. I think if we taken on board Janet’s thinking of one size does not fit all them this is a good starting point.

    2. Great to see this, a new way of looking at the whole interaction for me and this will take a little to fully process past my conditioning.

  2. Janet, what about when kids are cranky/tired/hungry/etc? Obviously, if it is a playdate then I take it as a sign that the playdate should end. But sometimes I watch a friend’s child who is about the same age as my daughter, so that isn’t an option. I feel like it’s reasonable for me to separate them/remove the toy/etc if I don’t feel like they have it in them to work it out. Would you agree?

    1. I agree, Mary. The idea is to observe, give children the room to work through struggles, and intervene as minimally as possible. When the chldren can’t resolve their struggle for whatever reason, they need our help.

  3. Great article. I find older kids have the same difficulties of playing. Schools are even limiting recess because they don’t want to deal with kids.

  4. I struggle with this a little, I like the concept but in reality wonder about it working in certain situations. If there is a child who is a strong presence, who always just takes toys right out of other more subdued children’s hands all of the time, do you think it’s right to not intervene. How is that child going to learn how to share or wait their turn instead of always getting things when they want them? Thanks

  5. Hi Janet, my 3yo sometimes tries to snatch things off her 4yo cousin as soon as she starts playing with something (and vise versa) and screams at her cousin. I usually say “your cousin has that, you can play when she is finished. Would you like to play with this while you wait?” If that escalates I’ll say “I know it’s hard to wait for your turn I’ll wait with you”. Is this ok or do you think my words need tweaking as I’m essentially telling her to wait her turn? I only do this if my niece doesn’t want to give up her toy and a meltdown is brewing!

    1. Hi Mary! You have been using an adult-directed, “wait your turn” approach, which is not the approach I’m recommending. If you’re interested in offering the children more freedom to problem-solve, learn to play together, and build confidence socially, I would try doing less and allowing the girls to do more. But, at this point, that will probably mean facing a meltdown or two. 🙂

      1. I have been dealing with Mary’s exact situation and reacting that way too – thinking that by verbalizing how she is feeling, and trying to redirect rather than setting a timer or something like that was a respectful way to go. I really do like your way better! Sometimes it is so hard to sit back and watch, but I find mostly b/c I am not sure how other parents will react. I think that is the biggest struggle, but worth verbalizing it as you mentioned in your post. I will need to start trying this!

        1. If you do try this, I’d love to know how it works out, Jen.

  6. Hi Janet this is a great article I see this so often and have been guilty of this too. I feel this is most difficult when there are certain children that instantly hit, and hit hard, when faced with a small scuffle over a toy. This is so frustrating as this is a bit of a safety issue and At the impressionable age of 2 my child after being hit so many times thinks this is ok too. do u have any suggestions about how to deal with this and the parent of the hitter?

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I would calmly shadow your child in new (or sketchy) situations, so that you can be there to protect both children involved.

  7. I have a biter…how would this method work then? I can’t leave them to work it out, she has a record of eleven bites to one child in one day. I have read, I have tried several approaches, she is actually a very smart well behaved child except for this bad habit which consumes her when she is too upset. We have tried everything.

    1. I’d hoped to make it very clear in my post that this approach is not about “leaving children to work it out”. This is an attentive, mindful approach and safety is always #1. Children passing through hitting or biting phases (I prefer not to label them “biters” or “hitters”, etc.) need an adult to very calmly shadow them, help with these impulses and encourage them to express their frustration another way. Have you tried offering her a teething ring that she can keep with her? Maybe on a necklace that she can wear?

      Lisa Sunbury Gerber wrote a very helpful article: http://www.regardingbaby.org/2012/04/10/toddler-bites/

  8. avatar Christina says:

    I often struggle with this sort of thing, my miss 4 often grabs toys from miss two (or vice versa) cause she wants it, then there is a huge screaming and running session through the house of chasing each other and trying to grab the toy back, I just sit and listen/ watch, no one is getting hurt then talk to them both once things settle down. they sometimes work it out themselves, other times not, yet I wonder with this approach is it teaching a child that they can just grab whatever they like and nothing gets done about it? then on the other hand if an adult is always ‘helping’ one of them it is making it look like the adult is taking sides or favours one child over the other, sometimes I feel like it is mostly the older one who takes toys and interrupts the younger ones very calm play. like she is looking for interactions but seems to do it in an annoying way (well that’s how it may look to an adult. then looking at miss 16 months, I can tell by her face of sheer delight and cheekiness that she has purposely taken a toy off miss two, and she runs off smiling waiting to be chased as if she is purposely taking a toy to instigate an interaction much to the displeasure of miss two who then screams and screams. does this RIE theory and practise work on siblings of such different ages, I try and us it but sometimes wonder if it is working or it is mainly for playtimes or playgroups of similar aged children who are at the same level of development. I try and do the sports casting thing of things like. You had the toy and now she has it and you still want to use it. but that doesn’t seem to work sometimes and then I tell them to use their words and ask for it back eg, say things like can I have it back please, they often do this themselves. I don’t want them to feel like I favour one over the other, I always felt like that as child that my parents favoured one of the other, but they were just trying to sort out sibling rivalry. Hope this all makes sense, it is very late at night.

  9. At what age (roughly) do you see this becoming important? My daughter is 10 months old, and, despite being in PLENTY of social environments with other babies from a very early age, she generally seems quite stressed out by her interactions with other babies. She isn’t particularly grabby, but she really doesn’t react well to having a toy taken from her, or from overly physical interaction with another baby (even if it’s gentle/playful). Curious if there are gentle ways I can try to make her more comfortable? Or do social skills just evolve later in some babies?

    1. Lesley – this is a process that looks different for each child, so I would not be concerned at all. Our worries are what often get in our children’s way and can end up creating their negative reactions. You can trust your baby to learn at her pace. So, accept where’s she is in this process, acknowledge her feelings if she reacts to something that happens (but be careful not to jump to conclusions or overreact). If a child is too close and she doesn’t like that, be there to calmly protect, acknowledge, and help her move away if she needs you to… Most children can handle a bit of discomfort as long as we’re there supporting them.

  10. What happend when is the others children and my boy stay just observing the toy take it away from him?
    I dont mine that my son stay calm but I really get upset that in the end he doesnt play. He has almost 3 and Im thinking that is better to play alone that deal with this kind of things. Thanks!

    1. Maria – I would observe your boy… Does he seem upset that he isn’t playing with the toy? Or the other children? It sounds like he is still figuring all of this out. And yes, children often do choose to watch from the sidelines while they are learning. I recommend trusting and believing in your boy. I would try very, very hard to take your feelings out of this, because they will only get in your son’s way.

  11. Thanks for your reply Janet. To be honest my approach was based on my understanding of your other articles/ comments so this post about not saying ‘take turns’ came as a shock. I’m positive I’ve read the words “I know it’s hard to wait, I’ll wait with you” from your blog. Have I really missed the point that much? I do mostly allow the girls to figure things out but apply my approach when it is starting to get nasty like pulling, pushing and screaming. I don’t feel it would be right to allow that type of behaviour. If it’s not physically threatening I let them to it.

    1. Mary – sorry for the confusion, but I have never said those words, I swear! You must be thinking of someone else. I don’t believe in imposing those kinds of policies on children. I would always prevent pushing, hitting, biting, etc., but I DO believe in allowing struggles (as I mention many times in this post), which often include screaming and pulling on a toy.

  12. Janet, your words are pure gold. I wish every parent could read them! We are just beginning to deal with this in our parent-infant class – the kids are 8, 9 and 10 months and so far, it’s been working great. I put together a handout on “sharing” (note the quotes) but your article says it so much better! I love the liberal use of Magda quotes. Readers interested in Emmi Pikler quotes can find them here: http://thepiklercollection.weebly.com/pure-pikler.html

  13. Ok, thanks Janet. Must say I love your blog and has taught me to hold back and allow my daughter space to direct her own play, craft ideas etc. I still have some work to do practising holding back with interactions with other children – well I thought I was doing ok but always open to trying a different approach. With baby two on the way, much to remember!

  14. I’ve got a three year old and one year old baby who usually play well together but with occasional episodes of the three year old snatching whatever the baby is playing with, with the baby usually crying as a result. The part I struggle with is when I’ve said something along the lines you suggest, the three year old usually says something like ‘But I wanted the toy to make the funnel of a train’ – what to then say? I can repeat that back to the baby but he obviously just keeps crying rather than says anything. Sometimes the snatching is a one-off and sometimes it is repeated snatching.

  15. Hi Janet, Thank you so much for posting this! It’s so helpful and I’ve been thinking about this for a while. It seems like a tough balance: allowing them room to sort it out, not letting it get physical/unsafe, remaining neutral, trying to break the habit of forcing sharing or turn taking while still protecting them from being labelled bratty or spoiled – especially when other parents/caretakers jump in at the very start of the conflict. It also seems like my daughter expects adults to intervene and gets even more anxious/upset when I don’t.

    1. Hi Emily! It’s not nearly as tough as it sounds… The toughest part is allowing children their feelings…just letting the feelings be, which is probably the toughest part of parenting, period. Once we get over that hurdle and begin to trust the ups and downs of our child’s unique learning process, the rest is simple (though never that easy). For an older child this might look like trusting her to feel sad and hurt when a friend is unkind…and then perhaps deciding to make up with that person, while we’re thinking, “No, no! She’s mean! You deserve better!” It’s not about us.

      It sounds like your daughter may have become a bit conditioned to needing your intervention, but I wouldn’t let that stop you from making an adjustment. I would be honest and let her know that you’re there and you care.

  16. I only wish the scenarios above would happen to me. One day at the sandbox, my almost 3 yr old son and his 2.5 yr old friend were playing in their own corners. His friend would come over and push my sons sand tunnel away. My son would say ” No” or some form of it. He looked at me and I told him yes you can tell him to stop. His friend would come back and do it again. After several times, my son had had enough and threw sand at his friends face. I got up and said no we don’t throw sand. This happens in different situations where my son either says excuse me or tells the other child to stop but the other child won’t. Eventually my son has enough of being nice and becomes physical. I’m not sure how to respond in those situations.

  17. Hi Janet, thanks for your wise words! I’ve only just found your blog, but have found it really helpful already. My situation is very similar to Christina’s. Would you use the same approach for children of different ages or only those at a similar stage of development? What do you recommend for an 18mth and 3yr old?

  18. avatar Stephanie says:

    Janet – my biggest pet peeve at the playground or other group play setting is when my son and another child engages with a toy at the same time, and the other child’s parent rushes in to intervene. I’m usually the one observing before stepping in (as long as no one is going to get hurt) and while I understand and empathize with the other parent’s reaction, it bugs me that the children’s interaction and play is interrupted. How should I/can I handle this? I always find myself at a loss for words and feeling awkward.

  19. I work with older toddlers and wondering about the difference between this and trying to encourage independent problem solving. An approach I’ve been trying the past few months is similar, but involves a little more interaction on my part… coming in if two children are struggling over a toy, doing some sportscasting (“you look really upset”), rephrasing their words “you really want this toy, and so do you” and then labeling it as a problem “–that’s a problem! How can we solve this problem?” Then letting them come up with solutions on their own, only offering any of my own suggestions if they seem stuck or look to be losing patience, and only after saying “I have an idea, would you like to hear it?” This strategy works mostly well, and it’s been great to hear the children start to use it on their own. It seems similar to what you are explaining here, but with a little more adult intervention… I’m curious what you think.

  20. This is an eyeopener. I usually step in and like you mentioned, tell the children to “share” or “wait for their turn”.. Looking back, I think it actually upsets both the children. One is sad that he has to wait and the other is upset because he knows he does have to give it away at a certain point of time..

  21. In general, this is the approach we take to our children and on playdates. I think it’s important for kids to be able to negotiate things amongst themselves. I haven’t really read up on any formal approach to it, it just seemed to make sense. I do emphasize turn-taking on communal property, though. i.e. waiting turns on slides, waiting for a turn at the spinning thing, etc. I feel it’s also important to understand that there is a general social order to how to do things – and that includes lines and waiting for turns.

    My biggest points of troubles with this are a few things and perhaps you can provide insight. The first, our 5 year old daughter is very passive, sensitive, and does not seem to have the same emotional/social abilities as other girls her age. She is frequently ostracized and it deeply bothers her, but she tags along anyway. We see this play out in “stuff” as well, with kids snatching stuff from her, taking away her belongings, and then ignoring her as she tries to express her feelings about it, request it back, etc. As a parent, I don’t see my role as just an observer of this – as it’s been going on for 3 years now – but rather as hopefully someone who can help give her tools to handle these situations. It’s difficult when one child is trying to problem solve one way and other kids are not responding.

    The second issue we have is with our younger daughter – who is almost 3. She does very well wtih most kids but it is very apparent to us that she has quite the different personality from her sister. She is more of a leader and director of play. But at times she can be overbearing. We have one neighbor who has a child that’s a year younger than our daughter, and our daughter routinely goes over to the girl on the grass (these are not playdates, just shared grass) and takes the girls things, which is very upsetting to the girl. I feel as a parent it is my role to intervene with that.

  22. Hi Janet,
    Sorry if I am repeating a question that the others have asked. I would really appreciate it if you could answer this.
    My 4,5yo has got language delay and when his 3,5 friend visits us there’s usually a toy conflict. I don’t force my son to share, but i start reasoni g with my son and often my son obliges and says “here you go”. i say somethinh like: it’s your toy, lend it to your friend for a bit…after he leaves you’ll have it again.
    When my son doesn’t want to give it up, i say fair enough, the toy is making you two fight, so it’s going into a time out. I take the toy and put it away. And so far thats worked.
    I am not taking time to work it out because:
    A) i have ths other mother (my friend who i want to have some tea with) pressing her son to give the toy back “it’s not YOURS, it’s HIS”; threatening him that she’ll leave if he doesn’t the fit (cos the other boy starts crying and pushing and hitting).
    B) because the two would sometimes get physical and if not, tantrumy.

    What do you think of my King Solomon method? What flaws do you see in it and how would you handle it differently? Sincerely, I didn’t see any of your case scenarios matching this one.

    Many thanks.

  23. What happens when another parent is yelling at your child? My son pushed another two year old at the playground, I saw it coming and was moving toward him but was too late. By the time I got there the other mom was yelling at my son (her child was not hurt, but at this point was crying as his mom was yelling). She was yelling “Why would you push him?! What is wrong with you?!” And my son began to cry as he has never been yelled at by an adult. I told the mom I was sorry he pushed her child and picked up my now crying child and attempted to sportscast “You were playing with the steering wheel and didn’t want anyone else to touch it. You pushed, I will help you not to push again.” The other mom grabbed her children and left the park. I know I will see them again, as our older children are in the same primary school and we were on the school playground after pick-up. Do I attempt to talk to her (she announced that my child is a “bully”) or simply stay by my sons side at all times on the playground?

  24. avatar Carol Hewitt says:

    I had an interesting experience around toy grabbing in a toddler classroom. One little boy would regularly walk across the room to take a toy from another child’s hands and carry it away to explore. Basically, this was a sweet child but he was taller and stronger than many of his peers. As I watched, I found myself focusing on his eyes — which were lasered onto whatever toy he was after. I also noticed that he rarely if ever took a toy out of a box or off a shelf. My guess was that the toy only ‘came alive’ for him when someone picked it up.
    So I started joining the twosome whenever he was reaching for a toy. I followed my little guy’s lead and focused strongly on the toy, “Oh, my, look at that,” I’d whisper and he’d look up at me, delighted and try to wrench it free to show me.
    Then, I added my hands to the bunch holding the toy and slow the tug of war.
    “What’s this?” I asked a couple of times, pointing to the other child’s hand holding the toy.
    “Oh, look, there’s an arm attached,” and my little “grabbed” looked from the hand to the arm — found a shoulder, found a face – and looked absolutely gob-smacked. When did she get here?
    After doing this twice, I think, I was able to stay across the room and could say something along the lines of, “anyone attached to that toy?” to jog his focus. He was so delighted with finding friends attached to his toys that the grabbing stopped being much of an issue.

  25. I need to know… say my 23 month old grabs a toy from another kid. Various ages unfortunately. What would I say to both of them? What if the kid is upset? What would I do besides acknowledge what happened and feelings. It is the gym child care where I work so I am very unsure. I do not think many parents there share ym beliefs.

  26. I also need help because most times a kid walks into our child care room where we work at a gym my 23 month old wants to approach them and start hitting them. He also will take toys periodically depending on the day and what toys they begin to play with. He screams out no if he does not want them doing something or playing with a certain toy. Clueless on how to handle this. And if I should be correcting the shouts. It startles the kids. It also sounds kind of mean, especially to older kids that do not quite understand why he is shouting and have been taught it is rude.

    Random but also how would you handle this situation. A girl and him coloring and he wanted the box of crayons next to him only. He was not even coloring. I put them in the middle saying everyone wants to color and it will stay here so everyone can reach. What was that about?

  27. What about when another child is the “toddler toy taker” and the child (ages 2yo) snatches every single toy out of my childs hands? The mother just kept telling the kid to share, or not to do that, but the kid kept doing it. What can I do? I can’t block another child from taking a toy from my daughter, can I? I actually decided not to have any more play dates with this child until I know what to do or she grows out of the snatching phase. Help!

  28. The challenge I’ve faced is that the struggle lasts quite a while! How long do you sportscast? I’ve done it for up to 10mins, when I really can’t spare that kind of time with a 6mo old in the room. My littles range from 6mo to 4yrs. Mostly the 2.5yr old takes from the 4yr old.

  29. avatar Hollie Allan says:

    I own a toddler’s tumbling and play facility and see parents struggle with this problem DAILY!! Would you be willing to come to our gym and put on a special presentation for parents in my area?? It would benefit so many of them!Please contact me and let me know!!

  30. avatar Elizabeth says:

    I don’t agree about keeping them from blocking slides. All too often, I see parents hovering over the slide at the park, controlling every move of every child to make sure there is orderly play. It’s extremely frustrating to me and I will not force my children to submit to another mother’s control issues. If a child is blocking the slide and one of my children wants to use it, I teach them to approach and ask the other child or, if my child is non-verbal, I ask with my child… But we don’t demand our way and if the child isn’t willing, we move and find something else to do. I’m surprised to hear that you feel as you do about slides and equipment. What is your reasoning?

    1. I think you may have misunderstood. I would not ask someone else’s child to move, but I would not allow my own child to block a slide or other equipment. I see that as common courtesy. So, you would allow your child to stand in the way of other children using the slide? For how long?

  31. What a wonderful post. When our kids got a little older we added one more thing. We reminded them to discuss it. The word “discuss” isn’t a common one for four or five year olds, and when uttered by one kid it seemed to halt the problem while they (with surprising maturity) talked over the problem. Sometimes that meant a child discussed his hurt feelings while another child discusses her right to do what she wanted. It actually seemed to be less about the content of the discussion and more about halting whatever grabbing/screaming/crying that was happening.

  32. This post is great. Where I struggle is with toys that don’t belong to my son. At a birthday party yesterday, my son(21 months) was riding around in a car for 10 minutes when another toddler came up to the car wanting a turn. What would be appropriate to say in this situation to my son?

  33. avatar Jennifer K says:

    I’ve always subscribed to this belief but haven’t approached these situations in this way in fear of what other parents might say. So now I think my son has come to rely on me. How do I shift the focus back to him and let him settle it?

  34. I try following this approach when we visit my brother in law’s home. He has a 1 year old and my daughter is 2. When I see them struggling for the same toy, I just say, “they’ll work it out” but my sister in law will go to her child and say “you have other toys over here” she can have that one” or “give”. I guess I can ask before the night begins if we can try letting them work it out but my daughter is much bigger & stronger than he is. Also notice that when she is struggling with him, she will look to me. Does this mean she has grown used to me intervening? I guess I’m starting to realize this (as I formulate questions) that I’m uncomfortable following this approach around the in laws because inevitably there will be a melt down which means inevitably an adult will intervene or say things like don’t be a bully, look at the baby crying, etc and this makes me most uncomfortable. How do you deal when you’re in situations where others are not aware of this approach and the adults end up intervening?

  35. Hi, Janet. I have an Annie from your example here; very blissful and generous. One of her litte friends is quite possessive so anything my Annie has her friend takes. I understand the concept you go over here about letting them work it out but if my child wants to play with the toy on her own and doesn’t want to work it out, she just wants her toy back, shouldn’t I honor that? I understand it happening but when it happens all the time and my Annie is then forced to come to an agreement to share or walk away constantly, how is that teaching her anything except to give in? Please help me understand this a little better. I want to agree with this philisophy but I can’t yet.

  36. Hi Janet! I am really enjoying reading about your approach. I have a son who is 16 months and tends to discover with his hands… sometimes resulting in his scratching the faces of his daycare friends. He is not showing signs of frustration or aggression, he simply walks up with hands out and grabs onto their faces with a lot of glee. Would you try to stop him before he reaches their faces my guiding his hand to doing something more gentle? I am struggling between intervening and not, but of course do when I believe that he is going to scratch another child (especially if smaller/younger than him). A bit lost in all of this…

  37. I hear what you’re saying about letting siblings work it out, but my older brother bullied me my entire childhood, and my parents didn’t intervene. He broke my toys, took my stuff, physically hurt me, and humiliated me at every turn. I think a lot of “over-involved” parents are responding to these types of childhood memories.

    1. I can certainly understand your concern, Jenna. The problem is that your brother’s behavior is what typically occurs when an older sibling feels judged, scolded, or rejected by his or her parents. Alternatively, children who feel the acceptance, empathy (and reasonable, respectful limits) of their parents tend to feel kindness toward their siblings and their behavior reflects that. When we constantly intervene between siblings, our judgment will be felt by them. We risk causing their fear, anger, and resentment and creating the exact dynamic we had hoped to avoid.

  38. While I agree with you that we do tend to put too much pressure on sharing and taking turnes leaving it out completely is another extreme.
    When children are on the playground and using public toys then sharing is the rule and there are toys that can’t be played with together but only by taking turnes. Also snatching someone’s toy is not acceptable. if I saw a child snatching my child’s toy I would ask him to give it back unless my child was ok with it. I think we all have right to our possessions no matter how old we are. Ofcourse sometimes children manage to resolve those conflicts by themselves and we should not interfere unnecessarly but most of the time with toddlers it ends up with tears and aggression.

  39. Hi Janet!

    I really love this philosophy and find that I have two big challenges when it comes to executing it.

    1. Other parents who either intervene immediately or make it clear that they think that I need to. (Usually at the park, or other public play places like the pool.)

    2. I have a giant child. He has been in the 95th percentile since he was 2 weeks old. He is very active and physical. He is 2, but much stronger than most children his age. I worry that he will hurt someone. He’s knocked children over before, just by trying to hug them. If he and a child both want a toy, he will clearly be the winner in a struggle over it. He’s also very affectionate and wants to hug other children who don’t always want a hug. Or they want the first hug but by the third hug, which is even stronger, they start to look a bit concerned. I worry less with older children who he can’t physically overpower, but it’s difficult to know exactly when to intervene. I worry that he will be perceived as a bully because he is so strong, even though he is a really sweet kid.

    I usually deal with “sharing” by saying, “oh, I see you’d like a turn. This child is playing with it now, you can have a turn when they are done.” It seems at 2, no one really understands the concept of sharing. They just think we are taking away their toys and giving them to someone else.

    1. Hi Amanda! I would intervene a lot more… I would not allow him to touch or hug a child unless you were sure that was welcome. I would not expect parents at the park or playdates to have the same philosophy I do. So, I would prevent him from taking the toys, but still not impose the adult solution of turn taking. Give space for him to come up with his own way of handling not getting what he wants in that moment. Children tend to be very resourceful and inventive if we can trust and allow them to be. Here’s another post that might make clarify some things for you: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2016/04/helping-toddlers-succeed-at-the-park-playdates-outings-and-other-social-situations/

  40. Any advice for twins/multiples?

    We love your approach and have found some great success with it–more with our 21m twin B usually conceding doubly desired object to twin A, but sometimes it just leads us to big arguments of “no,” buying, hitting, and/or huge struggles over a toy (and of course to prove it’s not about the toy, there’s an identical one right next to the whole scene that maybe just moments before was the coveted object).

    I’m also stuck on what to do once I separate the two if there are repeated attempts at biting/hitting etc. If twin A doesn’t end up with desired object, there is literally no stopping her–she will fight to her death for it (she will also claim her sister’s clothing, toothbrush, shoes, etc. if you aren’t extra vigilant). With the things that are clearly her sister’s, recently I’ve been able to suggest that she try on the outfit/jacket/shoes that are her sister’s and then take it off and give it to her sister with a decent success rate but on the rare occasion I ask twin B if it’s ok for twin A to try something on and she says no, Im not sure what to do. If I give It to B, then A will just chase and pull or push to try and get it. If I don’t give it to B and say “Looks like A really wants this right now,” B will start screaming herself “I said nooooo” and often this leads to uncontrollable crying. help, please!

  41. What about in the situation where a child takes the toys from my son and then he just runs to me crying? He’s almost two and I don’t want to over baby him. I completely agree they should try to resolve issues on their own. But my son looks to me for absolutely everything and I think it is Goulding him back socially.
    Do I tell him to just go play? Do I pick him up to console him? He needs to learn to self soothe, but I also need him to know he can always count on me.
    Note — he has sensory issues and a speech delay, so he’s easily overwhelmed and lacks an abundance of words to communicate.

  42. Some of the time, my kids (4 and 1.5) can work a lot out on their own. Which is so great to see. However, sometimes, if my 1.5 year-old has something my 4 year-old wants, he will get right up to her face and scream at her about how he wants it. Often times she will get upset and give it to him, seemingly scared by him. I often tell him I won’t let him scream at her, or tell him he needs to give her space, but it’s difficult for me to navigate his feeling of being so upset while also protecting her from being scared into doing what he wants her to.

    Would you treat something like this similar to hitting? Acknowledging his feelings of wanting the toy/whatever it is, but stopping the action (the screaming right at her)? By removing him from the room? By just having him back up from her?

  43. Hi there,

    I am curious about recommendations for how to react when one child comes up to the adult to “tattle” or look for the adult to intervene?

    When our 5 and 9yo start to argue, I tell them that they need to work it out on their own. I usually ask why they are upset or acting this way. Neither seem to know “why,” other than to say “She took my toy. He called me a rude name.”

    Should I not even ask why they are upset or acting this way?

    Often it’s the 5yo who wants me to intervene. He will come up and say “[Sister] took my lego and called me a rude name.” and start to cry. I will acknowledge his feelings and talk to his sister about her behaviour…usually it involves him screaming for the toy back, and sometimes hitting his sister, which causes her to yell at him and call him annoying/poopyhead/etc. I usually separate them at this point.

    Thoughts?

  44. Hi, Janet,
    My oldest daughter is 7 years and my youngest almost 6 month. My 7 year old is very sweet and gentle with her sister but I did that she interrupts her and wants to giver her the ball or blanket (just as an example). When she does that, the 6 month old gets interrupted and overstimulated. I am not sure if I should teach my 7 year old a little bit about independent playtime or should I “let it go”? She is in school M-F until 3, so the 6 month old does get quite some time to play uninterrupted. Thank you so much in advance! I am so glad I found your page. I always used to say, once the baby starts crawling or walking, I will need a nanny but now I realize, it will actually make my life a lot easier (because of the yes” space) 🙂

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