4 Reasons to Relax About Sibling Toy Taking

“I recommend that you intervene minimally in disputes between siblings. If the age gap is large or a younger child might get hurt, more supervision is needed. The more they can work out on their own, the better. The family is a microcosm of life and its struggles. Close your eyes. The more you see and critique, the tougher it becomes, because then you make your children feel guilty. Guilt is not a good adviser. Whatever you do, one of the children will think it’s unfair.” – Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby

There isn’t much that feels more patently unfair to parents than witnessing an older child take toys away from the baby. But rather than allowing this typical sibling behavior to raise our hackles, child specialist Magda Gerber encouraged parents to accept and try to understand these impulses, remain calm, and keep our long-range parenting goals in mind. For most of us, one of these goals is to raise children who have positive relationships with us and each other.  We’re far more likely to achieve this if we meddle less in their interactions and trust more. Here’s why:

1.  Toy taking is understandable (and kids need to feel understood)

Toy taking makes sense when we consider how painful and frightening it can be for children to have their parents’ attention shift toward another child. These feelings compel kids to try to regain a sense of control by dominating the baby. Taking toys is the common and relatively innocuous way they do that. Our child’s perspective might be: What’s the big deal about taking a toy or two out of the baby’s hands when she’s ripped my life apart? When parents overreact or judge this as “bad behavior,” they only intensify the child’s feelings of fear and loss, which can then create even more impulsive toy taking and other limit-pushing behavior, including aggression.

Cathy’s experience is common:

My two year old’s aggressive behavior towards his brother has significantly reduced since I relaxed about his toy taking.

She described her process:

I decided to relax by intervening as little as possible, though I do stay close, because my three-year-old can be rough with baby. So unless the baby looks at me, I say nothing but, “You had the toy and now L has it.” If he reaches for the toy, I say: “You want it back,” but only if that is communicated. (I’m trying not to make assumptions about the baby’s feelings!) I try to be really low key and not judge the behavior, just “sportscast” what is happening. My three-year-old listens attentively, too!

This week I waited to the point of total discomfort every time my son took the baby’s toys. I was just on the edge of stepping in to intervene when he decided to start giving toys instead, piling them in a huge heap in front of the baby! Oooh! It was hard, but it was so lovely to watch him discover the joy and engagement when he began giving.

Prior to this approach my baby would always look at me because he had become used to me saying, “The rule is no taking…. Please give it back.” He didn’t have a chance to try to reach for it, experience his feelings around it, etc. My three-year-old would inevitably end up trying to hurt the baby, because he was feeling like I was taking sides, I think. It’s been a really interesting and enlightening shift.

I suggested Cathy make one minor adjustment:

I recommend taking your observational approach even further… When the baby reaches, I wouldn’t assume that he’s communicating he wants the toy back… I would simply say, “I see you reaching your hand towards your brother”, or something like that.

2.  Children perceive play differently than adults do

Children, particularly babies, see with new eyes. They don’t have preconceived notions around play, and it can take years for them to learn how to successfully engage with another child for more than a minute or two. We nurture this learning process by offering our children opportunities for experimentation, trusting them as much as possible, and resisting our urge to over-intervene, because that creates dependencies and hinders their self-confidence. Taking and offering toys is the most common way infants and toddlers choose to play together. There’s really not much else they can do to engage!

With this understanding, our child’s toy taking seems far less mean and unfair.  A parent I recently consulted with shared an illustration:

Something you said did resonate with me and has changed how I’ve been interpreting L’s actions. It was essentially, “He’s wondering, ‘How do I play with this guy?'” Framing some of L’s more. . . shall we say. . . experimental interactions with H that way has been really useful and has allowed me to relax a little more about them. I had been managing to stifle my urges to say, “Be careful,” and “Be gentle,” for the most part, but that simple reframing has allowed me to actually relax about it, and I think all three of us can feel the difference.

A parent from one of my classes described a game that her toddler and nine month old infant had invented: The baby held a toy up to show her sister, and the sister would snatch it away, then hand it back. They repeated this many times because the baby found it hilarious, which made her sister laugh as well.

3.  Both children need us in their corner

The most beneficial supervision we can give siblings is acting as their coach rather than a referee. Yes, they’ll need us to ensure safety and provide a gentle tip or reminder, like, “Hmmm… you’ve been taking a lot of toys away from B… are there one or two you can let her have?” Magda Gerber suggests:

Don’t allow them to hurt each other, but don’t become the judge by always saying who was wrong and who was right. A parent should be an ally rather than a judge. If you intervene, say, “What else could you have done?” As much as possible, let them come up with the answers. Try to help your child want to do something rather than force him.

4.  When we stop judging, kids start sharing

Brettania’s story illustrates:

My three-year-old had been given a toy truck as a gift. It was new,  and it was his first day having it. He left the truck in our common shared play-space while he stepped away, and his one year brother began to play with it. When my three-year-old returned and saw his brother playing with the new truck, he immediately went to his little brother and said, “No, I don’t want you to play with this,” and he took the truck out of his little brother’s hands. I did not say or do anything. I just observed. Little brother seemed mildly upset and sort of grumbled about it while watching his big brother play with the truck (I know I am on the right track when they look towards each other and not at me when having these disputes!). About a minute later, my three- year-old put the truck into his little brother’s hands. All his idea.

In Angelique’s video, her younger son is the toy taker. Yet, somehow, her children manage to resolve their issue without being forced to share or take turns:

Trust is empowering.

***

For more, please check out my many other sibling posts: HERE

I also recommend Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Your Self Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and my respectful discipline guidebook, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

Thank you to Brettania Lopes for the exquisite photo! And also to Brettania, Cathy, Amy and Angelique for allowing me to share your stories!

35 Comments

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

  1. Great article! I am often dealing with this with my almost 4-year old boy and my 12 month old girl. Tonight I watched as my boy played with a bunch of toy cars. Baby girl crawled into the scene and grabbed one, then 2. My son grabbed the toys and then picked one for her to play with. Then he looked to me – probably seeking approval. I tried to shift my gaze – I don’t want him to constantly be thinking about my response/approval. What do you think about sportscasting vs trying to appear uninvolved? I think my presence influences his behavior and would prefer he feel empowered to solve on his own versus under my watchful eye.

    Also, when he is building with his duplo Legos and he expresses dismay at my younger daughter coming in (who typically ends up breaking his creations) I encourage him to move his play out of reach of his sister (usually to his bed or the dining room table). She clearly follows him as she is fascinated with whatever he is playing with – but I want him to have space to focus on his building without constant worry that his sister will break things.

    Any perspective would be much appreciated!!

    1. Thanks, Cassie! I’ve shared a lot about this in other posts. Your boy definitely deserves to have his “older child” projects protected. He also needs to be able to use toys and objects that are unsafe for your 12 month old. So, whatever you can do to provide him a separate space whenever he wants it is important. That might mean offering your younger explorer a safe, gated in area of her own.

      Regarding your son looking at you when he offers the car to his sister… Children tend to do this when, in the past, we’ve insisted they give the younger child something, etc. Your inclination to make less of this is a good one, in my opinion, because that will help him to behave more authentically with his sister and, therefore, develop a genuinely positive relationship with her.

  2. THANK YOU for this Janet! Question: When my 2 yo son complains or starts crying about a game my almost 5 yo son is playing with him, I often say ‘Lui doesn’t seem to like that game.’ Sometimes my 5 yo stops and other times he continues, which makes the little one run to me at times. Do you think I’m jumping in too quickly? Should I not say anything? Thanks PS I love the video!!

    1. You’re so welcome.

      If your little one doesn’t like the game he should stop playing it and move away or come to you, right? If you get involved in fixing this, you give power and drama to it. Alternatively, if the game doesn’t “work” for your son, he’ll lose interest in it.

      1. Thank YOU for replying. I have stopped ‘jumping in’ too soon even when it is obvious little one is not liking something, but AMAZINGLY, I’ve noticed my 2 yo is feeling empowered to express what he is liking and not liking about the game and 90% of the time they are working out things on their own!
        WAITING is definitely paying off.
        Thank you.

  3. Question: in the first story the mom sportscasts while in the video at the end the mother says nothing. I feel like i’d probably be more likely to just watch than sportscasting as I find sportscasting to be a bit awkward. But is it necessary? I’m pregnant and due in September, so this is a bit premature, but i’m trying to get educated in advance 🙂

    1. Oops, I should say i’m pregnant with number 2. My first will be nearly 3.

    2. Sportscasting shouldn’t feel awkward… I would only do it when children look at me or are obviously confused or upset, etc. It should feel like a natural response, but more matter-of-fact, rather than emotionally laden.

  4. Thank you for your article, Janet. I’m always glad to have your perspective and appreciate that your suggestion is not to be completely uninvolved, but to be minimally involved. I have experienced with my own kids (ages 6, 3.5, and 2) that for the most part they readily resolve their own conflict and that they do this with greater ease when my husband and I are not involved. However, there are times that they come to us for help and in those moments I believe that it’s important for me to involve them in a conversation about how we might solve the conflict. Telling kids to “work it out” themselves is okay IF they have had practice and some guidance in how to work it out. There are times when they do need us to guide them through this process. And there are times when they just need us to step aside 😉

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Kiyah, it’s always good to hear from you! I would never, ever refuse a request for help or guidance and tell children they must work it out themselves. But the way I would help would be to do the minimum, so that problem-solving could belong to the children as much as possible. Rather than telling the children what they should do, I would listen, “interview” and coach. Children are so much more capable than most people realize…and my goal is to nurture those capabilities and encourage them. It works!

  5. avatar Joan Fleming says:

    At some point, perhaps the aggressive toddler, will meet his match. Parents should stop this behavior immediately. If not, you are creating a “BULLY”. Baby needs comfort and so-called respect. He cannot defend himself.

    1. Do the children in these stories seem like bullies to you? You have a sadly common, one dimensional view of children and their behavior.

      1. I’d like to think that letting children sort things out at a young age would help them in their adolescent years to NOT be a bully. It would make sense that if a young child has the emotional confidence to sort out feuds now, that knowing right & wrong would come from within later.

        1. YES! This has been my experience for 20 years in parent/toddler classrooms and also with my own children, 22, 18, and 13. All three have high social intelligence and great character. And even without all of that, this approach makes sense to me.

          1. What about with regards to the older child? When I told my husband I want to give this a try, (because I am getting too frustrated with the snatching situation-and it shows!) he was worried about the older one doing the snatching? He was afraid this would carry over to school; that she would think she could just go take toys from anyone. Thoughts on this-I’m sure its not the case (otherwise you wouldn’t be suggesting this ). But what can I Tell my husband to put him at ease? Thank you so much!! I LOVE your articles!!!

  6. Thank you for this article, Janet. I have been struggling to know exactly what to do with my 5 and 2 year old, who are reacting to the new baby by fighting like crazy with each other instead of being resentful of me or the baby like I had expected. I have found that if I exit the premises, even to the point of going inside the house if they are outside, or moving to a different floor of the house, they seem to play more nicely, although sometimes it goes more badly than ever. Is this some sort of show they are putting on for me, do you think? In my sleep-deprived and overwhelmed state, I have been much less calm when they push my buttons (one of the major ones being that I desperately want them to be friends and take care of each other) and I am unsure how to be firm but let them know I see each of them, and how to both leave them to their own devices while not seeming to abandon them for the new baby.

    1. I would mostly leave them to their own devices, but also be clear with each that you are always available if they need you. So, if one wants to run to you complaining about the other, you listen non-judgmentally and maybe offer some advice or, better yet, guide your child to finding a solution himself. Mostly you just listen and acknowledge non-judgmentally. For example, “you didn’t like that when your brother did such- and- such and that made you want to hit… and when you did that he said he won’t play with you anymore… Hmmm… what else could you do?”

      So, you don’t lecture or judge. You are their coach, rather than their referree.

      I would also try to arrange to have one-on-one time with each child, if only for a few minutes each day… Like, perhaps, you give that child a bath, or read a story, one-on-one, etc. Also, a brief outing once a week would be nice. But don’t worry if you can’t do these things right away.

  7. I would love your input on my situation.
    my daughter is 27 months old and she has a half-brother who is 24 months old. her brother spends two (consecutive) days a week with us.
    I do not force sharing (and when child A wants whatever toy child B currently has, I tell child A that they need to find something else to play with and sometimes offer a few suggestions) but brother is used to an environment where sharing is forced and likes to say “MY TURN!” and grab toys when he want them. conversely, sister frequently has a hard time allowing brother to have ANYTHING at all that belongs to her and will grab while saying “MINE!” or “I NEED THAT!” and then repeat the action when brother picks up a different toy.
    sometimes when grabbing happens, reactions are small. frequently it quickly escalates to one child bawling “give it back!” and attempting with varying levels of success to take back the toy, and sometimes it turns violent, which is obviouly not acceptable.
    my general policy has been to not allow toy grabbing, mostly because it so frequently turns into a fight. I also want to enforce that when someone has something that one wants, one doesn’t get to just take it. at the same time, I want them to be able to resolve conflict without my intervention… and I generally really like the principles of RIE and feel that they’ve worked well when I’ve implemented them. I also try to talk to my daughter every week (but sometimes forget) before her brother comes about how when he is here he will play with her toys, and I know that it’s hard for her. of course, there’s also the tricky dynamic of having siblings who don’t have daily time together, and how my daughter feels about having to share her father and I on those does that her brother is here… plus the discipline style that her brother experiences on a daily basis being different from what we practice in my home.
    Advice?

    1. Your involvement (and the past involvement of the other parent) is what “charges” these typical situations and escalates them. Toddlers ARE fully capable of resolving their play issues (unless tired or hungry, etc.), if they have our calm support. But it needs to be okay for their play not to look neat and tidy. They need to be able to argue and struggle. I recommend following the guidance I share here: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2014/06/share-wait-your-turn-dont-touch-playdate-rules-that-limit-learning-and-what-to-try-instead/

  8. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Janet, you never cease to amaze me. So wise, so right on, so well said. Great video!

    1. Aww, I needed that boost today! Thank you, Ruth!

  9. I haven’t been reading in a while and I guess I’ve regressed and so have the children. What do you recommend if it has already gotten to the point of the older one being aggressive?

    He is much older 7 an she will barely be 2.

  10. Janet – My son does not have a sibling but at the park he takes other kids toys. It is so hard because 9 times out of 10 the parents get involved which makes it more dramatic. Any advice for making our park trips less dramatic?? Thanks so much…

  11. Very interesting post. I haven’t thought of this before. But every parent should read and implement this.

    Mine always throws tantrums when someone takes her toys.

  12. Janet- I have been practicing less interference with my kids that are almost 4 and 17 months. Sometimes it works beautifully but I have been seeing increasing “violence” by the little one. I think she is learning to standup for herself more now that I am not interfering on her behalf as much. So if older kid takes a toy from her, she reaches in to take it back. She has been grabbing at him and has accidentally scratched him in the face. My response was to remove her to the side, tend to upset hurt kid and to tell her that I can’t let her hurt him. This is happening more and more frequently. Am I doing something wrong. Should I step in earlier? The scuffles happen pretty quickly now.

  13. Janet – I bow down to you! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom, and for guiding me in developing my parenting style.

    We have 22-month-old boy/girl twins. We emphasize the importance of sharing and taking turns in our household. When B tries to take C’s toy, I calmly tell B that C had the toy first and that they may play with it when B was finished. Would you say that I should not interject and let them battle it out on their own?

    On another topic, our son has been pulling his sister’s hair. I interject by grabbing his wrist firmly but not hurting him (It’s the only way to get him to release his grip) and I say “pulling hair is wrong”. Any other words of wisdom?

    Thank you so much!

    1. avatar Sam Levene says:

      I’d love your thoughts on the exact same age twins boys where we have similar issues. I’m sure every twin parent does! The dominant twin is always taking his brother’s everything…

  14. I have 23 month twin boys and grabbing and fighting over toys is one of our biggest struggles. It usually ends up in tears and sobbing by the same boy every day. A lot of the time if he does get the toy he runs away from his brother to me even if I’m observing and not stepping in. Other times it results in hitting/pinching/hair pulling. 90% off the time it’s the same brother being attacked. We are at our wits end! Help!

  15. I love this advice, and appreciate it. I only have one child, who is 2, and I’m so curious what, if any, advice you have for the way that toddler’s interact with pets?

    We have a high energy 3 year-old dog, and I need to intervene to protect my son, but I also want them to have a good relationship and not such an adversarial one. Essentially the dog was here first and our son sees him as a kind of brother. The dog is always taking his stuffed animals, and invading his space. Obviously, dog training is part of it, but I’m constantly wondering what I can do better to help my son.

  16. avatar Stephanie says:

    How do you handle this with a baby? My 8 month old will roll over to the 2 year old’s toys, grab one and put it in her mouth. 2 year old will run over and take it from her and say, “no, mine!” Then the 8 month old immediately starts screaming and crying. Every time. I can’t just keep letting the 2 year old do that can I?!

  17. Hi Janet, this is so valuable, thank you. I have a 3.5 yr old and a just turned 4 yr old. The 4 yr old girl is mine, the boy is not but he spends 3 days a week with us. They play beautifully together… until they don’t. Often one will grab and actually hide a toy the other has been playing with and dropped or put down for a moment. Or they’ll literally both grab something and tug ‘o ‘war it until they are both crying or I come and take the thing away so it doesn’t break, saying “I’m not going to let you break this.” Or, for instance, when the boy arrives in the morning, my daughter will run and grab a toy she knows he’s going to want, and wave it at him saying “I have xyz, you can’t have it!!!” I’m wondering if you have any advice for how to handle toy grabbing (or anything grabbing) in older kids.

    1. Hi Jennifer! Here are some thoughts for you: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/09/when-your-3-year-old-grabs-toys/ Generally, and as in the example you shared at the end of your note, I would let this behavior go and not give it power. The more often children are together, the more important it is for us to normalize these exchanges, so that our disapproval does not continue to stoke the child’s behavior. There are rough spots like these whenever children this age play together. Let them be.

  18. What can I I do if both toddlers fight physically? My 13 month old daughter is really fighting her 2,5 year old brother back. She would try to play with him but my son pushes her away and can hit her really strong with the car. It is very frustrating because I feel like I just sit between them all day long. Just to seperate them when I wish they played together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations