Do a pair of one-year-olds squabbling over plastic hair rollers sound like fun to you? My guess is an unqualified ‘no’, but infants and toddlers define fun, play and learning quite differently than their elders. They approach social situations, even those that turn into minor conflicts, with curiosity and openness.
Observing infant and toddler interactions over the years, I’ve learned that babies have volumes to teach us about getting along with others, if we can just stay out of their way and let them.
Please watch the struggle in this video without any preconceived notions about play, manners, sharing, who-had-it-first. I think you’ll see that toddlers are not only capable problem solvers, they are ingenious, tenacious, accepting and forgiving.
Notes about interventions in this video:
1. Beginning around this age, I gently try to encourage the children to use language (like “no”) with each other, so they will be less inclined to hit or push (or allow themselves to be hit or pushed).
2. In RIE parent-infant guidance classes, we don’t believe in using a blaming tone when there is conflict, so that children don’t identify themselves as victims or aggressors. Instead, we ‘sportscast’ the situation non-judgmentally and matter-of-factly. Infants and toddlers are just learning and experimenting, and we want to give them the confidence to continue to do so.
3. Wish I would have said something to the little girl when she looked at me, something like, “You were both holding the roller and now he has it.” Or, “Yes, I saw what happened.” Or maybe, “Yes, I’m making a movie.” Honestly, I think I was afraid of interrupting something I was excited to share with you all, but she looked like she was asking for a response. I learn a lot watching these videos!
Educational experiences like this one are possible when we:
Provide a safe play space with communal toys (rather than personal ones) and allow children to interact with a small group of others of a similar age.
Fulfill basic needs. Obviously, toddlers who are hungry, thirsty, tired or otherwise uncomfortable won’t have the same interest in, or ability to face, social challenges.
Observe attentively and quietly. Children will play and interact when parents are talking, but it’s less likely and probably won’t go as smoothly. Babies are sensitive to the noise level, think more clearly and feel safer with each other when they have our quiet attention.
Physically intervene only when children might hurt each other and when doing so model gentleness. Our actions speak louder than our words.
State the conflict for the children non-judgmentally with an even-tone to help them understand what is happening and let them know you understand and are paying attention.
Provide an atmosphere of trust — believe the children capable of handling their squabbles. In my experience (and as demonstrated in the video), the children that “take” the most are invariably the ones who “give” the most. Children this age don’t understand the concepts of “sharing” or “ownership”, and when we try to teach them those things, we tend to discourage play and learning. Our interruptions put the brakes on valuable social exchanges and leave toddlers with the message that they’re incapable of interacting with their peers.
In these first couple of years, babies are innocently looking for a way to engage, just trying to figure out how to play together. There are going to be plenty of struggles, clumsy exchanges and blunders along the way. But our babies won’t be inclined to judge the situation or each other, they’ll just be glad to be there.
Following the RIE approach, we start with the least amount of help and intervention and then slowly increase it. We do expect and trust that even infants eventually learn most by working out conflicts all by themselves. If every time adults jump in and bring in their version of what is right, the children learn either to depend on them or to defy them. The more we trust they can solve, the more they do learn to solve. –Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect
I share more about this respectful approach in