“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!