When Toddlers Take Toys

In this episode: Janet responds to a question from a mom whose 15-month-old is constantly taking toys from his peers on the playground. She describes him as “very physical and stronger and taller than most of the other kids.” She’s tried many approaches to moderate his behavior, but none of them have worked. She’s looking for some new strategies. (Here’s the article that Janet and the parent refer to in the podcast: www.janetlansbury.com/2011/02/what-t…ler-toy-taker/)

Transcript of “When Toddlers Take Toys”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m responding to a comment from a mom whose 15-month-old is in the habit of taking toys from other children on the playground.

Here’s the comment I received, it was on one of my articles, What To Do About A Toddler Toy Taker?

“Hi, Janet. Thank you for this fantastic article. I know it was written a while back, but it’s very relevant to what we are going through right now, and I’m hoping you can offer advice on how to handle it. I don’t want to be the type of parent who is always intervening and I do believe in letting kids work things out and learn on their own. I’m struggling because my15-month-old son is constantly taking toys from all the kids in the playground. He’s very physical and stronger and taller than most of the other kids. When we play in the sandbox or on the splash pad in the playgrounds, he takes the other kids buckets and shovels and other toys.

He is fast and strong and the kids are his age and aren’t strong enough to hold on, or are older and know how to say, ‘Hey that’s mine,’ but they don’t fight to get it back. I don’t want to constantly be intervening. But on the other hand he’s taking all of their toys and I feel like I have the mean kid on the playground and the parents are upset with me. I try to stop him and he throws a fit, or I try to barter toys and give the kid his toy if he takes their toy. How would you suggest I handle this? He throws a tantrum when I tell him not to do that or I’d take the toy and give it to the other child. He’s not yet talking and doesn’t have words yet. I don’t want to be scared to teach him boundaries even if it means many, many tantrums on the playground. But I’m hoping for advice on the best way to do that.

He’s our first child and we don’t have ways to practice in our house. The only place to practice is somewhere that is extremely public like the playground. My husband stays at home with him right now and he’s struggling with this as well. Any help or advice you have would be greatly appreciated. Also, are there books you would recommend reading on this subject of setting appropriate boundaries?”

First, what went through my mind was, she said, “Because my 15-month-old is constantly taking toys. He’s very physical and stronger and taller than most of the other kids.” When I heard that part, I’m picturing this giant, buff kid and then I had to look back and say, “Wait a second, he’s 15 months.” So this is a tiny guy, even though he’s bigger and stronger than the other kids. These are tiny, tiny babies really just figuring out how to connect, how to play with each other. It’s not easy to connect with another child at this age.

That starts to get easier at maybe 2 1/2 or 3, but at this age it’s hard. How do you play with another child? It sounds like this boy is, in a way. similar to the child that I talk about, who was a child in my class. I talk about that child in the article: What To Do About a Toddler Toy Taker? That girl, just like this boy I imagine, was really one of the more social ones there, one of the children most interested in connecting and trying to engage with another child.

So that’s often part of this, that those children that actually end up being the ones that later become the ones inviting the other children to play games with them, or even handing them toys. Generally, it’s the same type of child who is just very interested in that kind of engagement and the cause and effect. What happens if I do this, and what happens to that child if I do that? It’s not really so much about, especially at 15 months, for any of them it’s not really about the stuff so much.

I think we as parents tend to, with our own more sort of judgmental responses, we can make it more about the stuff without realizing we’re doing that. I recommend being conscious of that so that we really take our adult judgments and adult lenses out of the picture, and we really try to see, really try to observe closely what’s going on with the children. We’re not feeding these feelings of being insulted, somebody took something from my child and therefore giving a message to that child that something terrible just happened rather than you know, “Wow. Oh you had that in your hand and now… Oh, he’s got it now.”

Honestly, if I work with children, I’m constantly working with children between the ages of three months and three years old and I see how especially in these early months, beginning of a second year, they’re more interested in what the heck just happened. What’s going on here. “I was just using that and now he’s got it in his hand. What does that mean?” That is if we as parents are able to refrain from projecting our own judgments and criticisms and ideas into the situation.

If we really just allow things to be as they are. Now that’s not the way most of the world works. When we are out in a public situation, I believe we should be protective of our children, protective of the way people are regarding our children and wanting to have them in the best light with other people. I would intervene much more in public than I would in my classes. With a child, I would recommend really being there and not allowing those toy removals to happen.

The best way to do that is to be his buddy-guard right next to him, but not in a hovering tense judgmental way. Really in a chill, smooth, almost like in slow motion, but you’re right there and you’re observing. So you’re able to see now he’s coming close to somebody and you’re going to be ready. Is he going to reach for that toy that the child has? Then, as he’s doing it you put your hand in between very calmly, very smooth, smooth as possible. Not frightened because this is all normal stuff. This child is doing, there’s no signs of bully here or evil or anything like that to worry about.

Just putting your hand there and seeing him reach out. “Oh wow. Yeah. That’s interesting what he’s got there isn’t it? Looks like you want to touch that.” You’re not needing to overreact because you’re there, you’re smooth, you’re on top of it, you’re ready and you can do the most minimal thing. Then if he keeps reaching and reaching past your hand or something then you can say, “Wow, it’s like you’re reaching for that and he’s holding it, so I’m going to stop you,” but no judgment, no emotion on our part will be really helpful.

Doing that, I think there’s less chance that you will get a big reaction, unless there’s another reason, unless maybe he’s tired or hungry or there’s another reason that he’s feeling upset. If you’re really in there coming down into it so smoothly or he’s also not sensing your discomfort, then I think there’s much less chance that you will get a tantrum response. If you do, that’s okay, it’s not just about what you did there.  If he has a strong reaction, it’s because you’re setting that calm limit and it’s helped him to release something that needed to be released. It’s not that you’re being terrible there, you’re doing something cruel and stopping him. You were just doing something that allows him to tap into something that he needs to share.

So, I would go along like that. The other thing this mother mentions is, should I try to barter toys and give the kid a toy? No, that’s getting way too involved in trying to make it work.

I wouldn’t try to make it work. I wouldn’t try to find another toy for your son or distract him, or do anything but this very chill smooth interpreting for him. And don’t interpret it like you have all the answers because we don’t.  just be there, be open to like, “Looks like he’s saying no.” I mean, you might get a child that hands the toy to him. If the children feel that calm, comfort coming from you, that you’re not wound up and that there’s not tension in the situation.

In that atmosphere, children are far more likely to do something surprising like handing off the toy to him, or finding another way to play together. I would take the responsibility off your shoulders as a parent to try to make it so this interaction works. It’s really only up to us to keep boundaries around it.

He may get frustrated if he keeps trying and it keeps getting stopped, even if you do it in the most calm manner That’s okay. That’s like the kind of frustration that happens when we’re learning something and we’re trying to figure something out. Ugh, I can’t get this I can’t and it’s not working for me. That’s okay, it’s healthy frustration, and it’s also okay that he doesn’t have words yet.  Even if he did have the words, it’s very hard for children this young to communicate with each other that way. They’re still in a state of trying to figure out what is going on and why am I doing this, I just want to get this guy’s attention, and so I’m going to take his toy.  Or, Gee, that looks so interesting when he’s holding it.

Oftentimes, when these toys are down they’re less interesting, they’re not alive like they are when they’re in somebody’s hands. So really knowing that it’s not about the stuff and that there’s nothing, no signs of danger going on here with him. It’s really normal and he just needs some help to figure out on his own, he will, ways to engage with children that are welcome by them, to learn what works and what doesn’t work. And what works with this child doesn’t work with that child. This is this complex learning that we all have to do in life.

It’s a process. And children do need our help with it, but the help that they need is for us to not judge them, even if he wanted to have everybody’s toy and everybody gave it to him and now he’s taking somebody else’s toy. Now he’s got all the toys. I’m saying if these were willingly given to him by the children and then now he wants something else. I still wouldn’t say, “Well you’ve got all those. What’s the matter with you? Are you getting his too?” Because he’s playing a game here with the children or something. There’s something going on here that’s really not about adult rules of play or older children rules of play.

At this age, they’re just discovering, they’re learning, they’re exploring and they need our confidence in them, so that they can feel confident in this difficult process.

As far as books to recommend… Well, I mean, I obviously recommend my book ‘No Bad Kids‘ And ‘1, 2, 3‑‑ the Toddler Years‘ is another great book about boundaries and it’s derived from a preschool setting, so there’s a lot more group interaction advice in there, I think. I haven’t read it for a long time but that’s when I remember.

Magda Gerber’s book, Your Self‑Confident Baby, and I would also consider listening to my other podcasts and my other articles on my website that are on this topic. So check those out. I hope this helps a little bit. It does work.

After recording this, my mind flashed on a question that listeners might have so I thought I would go ahead and address it in a little addendum here:

What do we do if our child happens to take the toy before we get a chance to be there, or we’re just not paying attention? Somehow that happens. Then again, the most important thing, take your time, relax, this isn’t a crisis or a tragedy. This is just the typical thing that happens.

So then I would say to my child.  Maybe if you thought your child was going to run away with the toy, you’d have your hand there, and then you would check out the other child and really see, not assume, but really see and then you would comment. “Hmm… Did you want that? Yeah, it looks like that he wants that, so I’m going to help you give it back. Do you want to be the one to do it?”

And then meanwhile,  I’m there, I’m ready to follow through, but I am going to offer that opportunity, especially with a child a little older than this.  And then I would say, “I think that’s going to be hard for you. So, I’m going to open your hands and I’m going to take this out and I’m going to hand it back to this person.”

Then, let’s say your child screams and cries or has a reaction, then I would acknowledge, “You didn’t like that, you wanted to be the one holding that. You wanted to hold that.”

So, it’s all very calm very easy. The difficult thing is that parents are probably going to think that you’re crazy because, first of all, you’re talking very respectfully to young children. You’re relaxed about these things when most people tend to be frantic and actually model… I mean, this is important to keep in mind, children are watching us. Even when they’re not looking at us, they’re sensing everything we do our children. This is how they learn to behave with other people. They learn through our modeling, primarily.

If we’re coming in frantically and grabbing the toy away and giving it to him, then we’re going to see more frantic grabbing type behavior in our children. That’s just the way that it works. So all the more reason to be chillaxed, as my son says, to be calm, to know that you know, yes parents might judge you.  Put blinders on, because what you’re doing is important.  What you’re doing is right and it works.

I hope that helps, and again thanks for listening. We can do this.

Please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

1 Comment

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

  1. What if it is other children that constantly take toys from your child? Do you interfere in the same way? My son is 20 months and sometimes the child taking the toy is (much) older. I feel the need to step in.

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