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: