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?
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!):
- 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.
- How can I find parents and groups that allow children to work through struggles? There may be a RIE-based Facebook group in your area with that information. Or you could form your own playgroup of like-minded parents. HERE are some guidelines.
- 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.)
- 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
We try to let my 3 year old son and 1 year old nephew sort it out between themselves when they struggle over a toy, but when I tell my son ‘you’re upset because he took it from you’, he erupts into full blown crying. Im wondering if I’m making the situation worse by saying he’s upset. This happens every time when I say you’re upset or it hurts or it’s painful. What can I do differently?
Are you sure he’s upset when you make that acknowledgement? I would try to stick to saying only what you see and maybe not comment at all unless the child looks to you. If the child looked at me and make an upset sound, I would say, “I saw that. You had it and now your cousin has it.” Then if he was clearly upset, “You didn’t like that!” So we’re not telling a child without meaning to: Hey you should be really upset that happened!
Thanks for the reply! I will try to do what you suggested.
My pleasure! Please let me know how it goes.
May I ask for a suggestion when there’s an age difference and kids are not related. When a 4. 5 year old takes a 22 month old child’s toy and the younger one is not happy about it but doesn’t have vocabulary to express it or to verbally ask for it back and cries and points at his toy? Many thanks in advance!
I like how Janet says that at RIE they have the luxury of sitting and observing and being ready to step in to stop children from hurting each other. As a stay at home mom of a 5, 4 and 2.5 year old, I do not have that luxury. I’m in the kitchen washing dishes, cooking or canning while my children are in the living room and before I can get there someone is hitting or biting. If I could sit with my children all day then I could do something about it. But I don’t have that luxury.
Yes, with siblings physical aggression will happen, but the overall atmosphere we cultivate: encourage all feelings and not demonizing typical behavior can make a big difference.
Yes, with siblings physical aggression will happen, but the overall atmosphere we cultivate: encouraging all feelings and not demonizing typical behavior can make a big difference.
My four year old loves to play cars, he puts them in different lines and moves in different paces, he gets really involved and can focus on it for a long time. Then comes his two year old sister who just takes his cars from the lines. At this point my four year old gets really, really angry. He screams and tries to use force on his sister. Sometimes when he sees her approaching he asks me to stop her because he doesn’t want to ruin his car lines.
Should I allow the two year old to take the cars and just watch and sportscast? I feel like I let my four year old down by not helping even though he asked for it.
Similar happens here too. I’d love to hear Janet’s response
A one-year-old plays very differently than a more project-oriented 3 or 4-year-old, so I would protect your older child’s projects by giving the child a separate space to play in — could be on a high table that the baby can’t reach or a whole a separate room or section of a room. Alternatively, the baby could be in a gated-off “yes” space as I’ve recommended. So, no, I would not give your baby access to the cars. This is also important because those smaller toys are not safe for a younger child to mouth, etc. Sometimes what will happen is that the older child actually chooses to play where the baby is. Allow that only if you are available to keep the children safe while welcoming them to engage in conflict. This is how both children will learn to engage, solve conflicts themselves, and set boundaries with each other.
My 2yo has a 7yo cousin who are close and have a close bond but when playing 9 times out of 10 when my 2yo is happily playing with something and is causing no issues and the 7 yo wants it and will try to take it or dominate the situation and then an issue is caused. It seems that everything the 2yo has he wants.
I hear my 2yo saying no say no to him or try to get it back which will then lead to him shouting or crying or hitting because he has taken off him which is a common thing the 7yo does to him.
I do on occasions let them sort it out and on occasions I do have to intervene. I do explain to the 7yo that the 2yo had it first and then i do the turn taking game so they both get to play with it and sometimes he will accept and play with something else.
But if my son takes of the 7yo he immediately wants it back and will snatch and tug of war game begins ( he takes off my child but doesn’t like it being done back) in some instants i have to intervene and tell my 2yo to share and give it back as he had it first. I do try and explain to the 7yo if my 2yo takes off him that he is still learning how to share and is alot younger than him.
But its just the fact that as soon as my son picks up something the 7yo wants it or and thats what triggers and bugs me. Its like all these toys and you want something that you wasn’t bothered about because my 2yo has is ( he is the same with his sister taking and dominating games and situations so he gets the toy or longer or more goes with the toy but when they have had their turn its like its my turn now and will have 4 goes to their 1)
i have to intervene sometimes when i have witnessed the 7yo keep taking but i get triggered from this behaviour sometimes and shout because it happens so frequently.
If someone isn’t in the room when the 7yo has taken when an adult goes in to see what the fuss is because the 2yo is crying it usually then made thats its the 2yo fault more and then he gets in trouble to then i feel guilty because my 2yo is getting told off when its actually the 7yo who should be.
My 2yo isnt a saint and can be part of problems in situations but sometimes i do feel that the 7yo knows what he is doing and its like he likes seeing my 2yo get told off and likes winding my 2yo up.