The interventions we use when children battle over toys or engage in other social struggles are reflective of our perceptions of their abilities, as well as our general attitudes toward learning and ‘struggle’. Do we perceive babies, toddlers and preschoolers as basically capable? Or fragile and needy? Are our children born active, self-directed learners (as child specialist Magda Gerber asserted), or do they need us to manage their development from day one? Should we prevent children from struggling, avoid frustration and disappointment, or are age-appropriate conflicts healthy learning opportunities?
My experiences working with infants and toddlers confirm Magda Gerber’s assertions about their competency and the benefits of allowing them to learn through conflict. In my recent post, Share… Wait Your Turn… Don’t Touch… Playdate Rules That Limit Learning, I shared intervention techniques she recommended for helping kids learn from social struggles and some of the reasoning behind this approach. I’m using this podcast to demonstrate and elaborate further:
Transcript of “Toddler Toy Battles – Interventions That Work” (courtesy of Torin Thompson)
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and I’m going to talk a bit today about handling our children’s toy battles. Now I’ve written a lot about handling conflicts between children, so I’m excited to have this opportunity to verbally demonstrate some of the interventions I recommend. These interventions work because they are minimal, and that means the adults are doing less for the children and allowing children to do and therefore learn more. Children are able to experience and even resolve safe, age-appropriate struggles, express their feelings, gain social intelligence and confidence. These minimal interventions also help children join each other in play, which is actually what they are trying to do, rather than each focusing separately on a toy, which is what generally happens when we say, “now it’s his turn, and then it’s going to be your turn,” or “she had it first,” or “now it’s time to share that toy with your friend,” which usually means give it away to your friend.
Now I realize there’s conflicting advice out there and as I mentioned in my post “Playdate Rules that limit Learning,” when sifting through all the wonderful parenting advice out there about all kinds of things, it’s important, I believe, to ask ourselves, what are our goals? Young children learn to socialize when they have safe, experiential learning opportunities. This is the way children learn best. But this isn’t about leaving them to just figure it all out by themselves. They need our support. And one of the ways we support is by keeping them safe. So if we see that children are struggling, or maybe about to struggle, over a toy, we calmly walk over to them. Now if we know that the child has a tendency to hit or bite when in conflict, we might stride over, but it’s best to save running for extreme emergencies. We want to remain as calm as possible. So then we would be there to place our hand in the way if a child is going to hit and say something like, “I won’t let you hit, I see you want that, you want what Joey has, and Joey, you want to hold that too, you’re both holding onto it. I can’t let you hit. You know, I’m not going to let you, I won’t let you move Joey’s hand. I see how much you want that.”
So we prevent the physical actions but we allow the struggle. Children need us to remain calm and patient and acknowledge what’s happening in neutral tone. As much as possible, we are placing our confidence in them as they navigate these situations.
So one child might be the one that is trying harder to connect, and sometimes that’s going to look like taking the toy away. Another child may be the one that tends to give it up, but if we worry about either one of those children, we aren’t helping them move through this process and learn from it and get to the other side. And then there’s another child that isn’t even willing to step out into the fray.
Trust your child, trust the children, trust their processes, and allow them to move through these different phases that they go through, rather trying to change them or shame kids out of them or fix situations.
In my recent post, Playdate Rules that Limit Learning, I share a couple of examples, which I’ll repeat here to show you how the interventions sound.
Ben and Arthur, both two years old, are holding onto a toy school bus. Ben screams as Arthur manages to pull it away from him. I move close to support them, I acknowledge, “You both wanted that and now Arthur has it,” and I say to Ben, “That’s upsetting.” Ben reaches for the bus again as Arthur stands frozen, and he’s just taking in the situation. And then suddenly, he turns and he runs with the bus in hand, and Ben chases him. They both screech and laugh as they circle around the deck, and this joyful chase game continues for several minutes.
Now that actually happened and it was a game that Ben, interestingly, found a way to instigate every week. So this is the way conflicts are sometimes resolved. But not always. It doesn’t look so neat and wonderful sometimes.
So let’s say Ben continues to be upset and Arthur continues to hold onto the bus. We would stay with Ben’s experience. We would stay calm and say, “Yeah, you really wanted that. I hear, I hear you, I hear how upset you are.”
And then let’s say that Ben says, “I want to go, go home!” Or, “Go home!” Which often happens, but the class isn’t over yet. And anyway, we, we sense that he’s wanting to escape this uncomfortable situation, so this is what we say. “You feel like going home.”
And if he keeps saying go home, go home, we keep staying there with him. “Yeah, you want to go home. You didn’t like what happened. It seems you want to go home.”
We just stay with that, we don’t, you know, panic, we don’t worry that oh my gosh, we’ve got to take him home. We just let it be. Let the feelings be. This is the key to everything. Just allowing it all to be okay. It’s okay to go through these different feelings
Sometimes if the children continue, we might say, “You’re thinking about home. What’s at home? What will you do when you go home?”
So all this does is let children know that we are okay with their feelings and it’s actually very empowering for them, because if we’re okay with their feelings, then they’re okay with their feelings. It’s a wonderful message to give children.
So what if they kept struggling and screaming, both of them holding onto the bus? Then I might say, “I see you holding that together. You’re both holding onto that You’re pulling very hard. You’re, Arthur you’re getting upset too. You don’t want to give up the bus.” It’s not about having a non-stop dialogue.
Mostly it’s about our presence and our attitude and our acceptance. You know, parents are very, very powerful. You’ve probably never had as much power in your life as you do as a parent, or even a teacher. Because your mood, your feelings will affect theirs, so that’s why it’s so important for us to find that place within us where we can unplug those worries and our own emotional responses and just let it be, let it be.
An interesting thing happened in class recently. A quite verbal almost two-year-old was mentioning that she didn’t want this other girl to touch anything. She didn’t want her to touch a climbing structure. She just didn’t want her to touch things. So all I did was acknowledge: “You don’t want Annabelle to touch that.” Now if this girl had tried to pry her hand off of the climbing structure, I would not let her do that. I would say, “I hear you saying you don’t want her to touch that. I won’t let you move her hand.” But so what that she doesn’t want her to touch things? That’s okay.
You know, I think as parents, our tendency is to say, “Well that’s everybody’s, she can touch that, let her touch that,” rather than just letting it be. Children go through these phases and there usually is a reason. Most of the time we won’t understand what the reason is, but they need us to continue to believe in them, accept where they’re at, let it be okay.
Another child in class recently was struggling with every single toy. He wanted certain toys and he would put them down, but then when another child took them, he would scream that he wanted those toys. He was struggling and struggling and it was clear at a certain point that, really, if we’d even tried to fix the situation, it would’ve been fruitless, because it was something that he was going through, it was an experience he wanted to have, needed to have. And then at one point, he finally just completely fell apart, and was sobbing for quite a long time and his mother realized he’d been in a situation where he was slightly younger than other children in his group and things were being taken from him all the time, he felt a bit powerless. It was stressful, so he came into our class and he was able to express these feelings through both his actions and then releasing his emotions.
I realize it’s quite challenging to unplug our emotions, let feelings be, and not worry about what our children are learning at that particular moment in these situations, but it can actually be kind of fun in a challenging kind of way, and it really does work.
We can do this.
5 Reasons to Love Conflict by Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children
Toddler Bites by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
We Can Work it Out! Kids & Conflict Management by Sarah Morrison and Kelly Meier, Respectful Parent
Could NOT Forcing a Toddler to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts? by Kate Russell, Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids
These Toddlers Are NOT Sharing
(Photo by Valentina Powers on Flickr)