Learning Through Social Struggles with Our Support

In this episode: A parent wants to give her toddler the freedom to work out struggles with other kids, but because of their busy urban environment, parent and child tend to be in close quarters. She says of her son and his playmates: “They look right at us expecting, needing, wanting our help.” To this mom, it seems the children believe their parents are “purposefully watching them struggle and kind of laughing at them by not helping.” She’s wondering how it’s possible to allow the struggle while still assuring her toddler that he’s being supported.

Transcript of “Learning Through Social Struggles with Our Support”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m responding to an email I received from a parent who asks an interesting question. She wonders how we can give children the freedom to work out their struggles, their peer struggles, themselves while also being there to support them, to keep them safe, to let them know that we’re not abandoning them and we do care.

Here’s the note I received:

“First, I’m a huge fan. I don’t listen to podcasts or read blogs or even books. You’re the only person I reference when I have a question about anything, so thank you. Second, I’m always reading your posts that seem to be targeted to people who live in the suburbs or areas outside of the city. My question is this: how do we give children the freedom to work out their struggles when we have to be five feet away from them at all times? As a child, I remember running around at night with my friends in the backs of their houses. Things would come up and we would have to work it out alone because there were no adults present.

But living in Brooklyn, I must be within five feet of my toddler at all times, which also means every other parent is also about five feet away from their child. Particularly, because space doesn’t allow us to be much further and also the parks are surrounded by busy streets and sometimes not so friendly people. So when our children start fighting over a toy or the swing, et cetera, they look right at us expecting, needing, wanting our help. And because we’re right there, it feels like we are purposefully watching them struggle and kind of laughing at them by not helping them, basically saying, “We see your pain and we’re just going to watch.” Again, if we weren’t right there, we wouldn’t have to do anything, but we are always there every time. Of course, we talk to them if the other parent hasn’t already swooped in and fixed the problem. I just wish I knew a really great way to say, “I see you struggling and I want to help you so badly, but this is good for you to figure out,” in a way she can understand. Thanks.”

Okay, so she brings up a lot of issues and some misinterpretations of what I’m teaching, I think. So I want to address those. Firstly, I’m curious how she got the impression that my posts are targeted to people who live in the suburbs or areas outside of the city, because that’s not my intention or what I feel when I’m sharing this information. I’m picturing all kinds of situations and lifestyles and areas, not just suburban ones. I wish she was here so I could ask her more questions about where she’s getting that. What she asked is “how to give children the freedom to work out their struggles when we have to be five feet away from them at all times.” And then she brings up that she remembers having a lot of freedom as a child, and I remember that as well.

I lived in, I guess, more of a suburban area. My sisters and I would be gone in the neighborhood and we’d be at various people’s houses, sometimes taking long bike rides. But, yes, tons and tons of freedom. And many people of my generation have noted the contrast between those days when we were so much left to our own devices and the current times we’re in where parents don’t tend to do that as often.

This parent is also mentioning that she has a toddler, and I don’t think any of us were left that way as toddlers, to go off and do our own thing. Maybe in a gated area or certainly in our backyards or our friend’s house, but not with an inordinate amount of freedom.

What this parent wants to do is give her child the skills to be able to, as she grows, be more independent and be able to function well with other children, to have that experience of engaging in conflicts and struggles with children in a developmentally appropriate manner. And that situation is provided for this parent in these urban settings, in these parks.

Unfortunately, what can get in the way are other parents who are hovering, for lack of a better word, fixing things, not allowing struggles to happen. And that is difficult when our child is constantly engaging with parents that are uncomfortable with their child being in conflict. That’s why RIE classes can be so helpful. Here is a playgroup where parents are learning how to let go and allow their children to engage, not coming from a place of judgment or always using that adult lens. We’re working on allowing them to develop their social skills.

What can be challenging is when there are parents that are not like-minded and do not have this same interest in giving their children the freedom to work out struggles. So it can be helpful to, at least part of the time, have your child engage in a playgroup of like-minded parents to give them that support and encouragement.

The big misinterpretation here with this parent is that she is understanding freedom to work out struggles as watching from afar. What I propose is much more than that. It’s not watching from afar, nor is it turning away and ignoring or being on our phones. When children are struggling in these early years, this is when they are developing the foundational skills for dealing with other children, social intelligence, understanding struggles, these conflicts being normalized for them in a positive way so that they can feel confident in handling them. This is an important time.

I get the impression sometimes that there’s this idea that we either let them go running off and don’t care what they do and we’re not present for them or we are hovering in an unproductive manner. There is a happy medium that parents should only feel proud to embrace.

One thing that has changed from the old days to now is that parents are having less children. Often they’re having them later in life and they want to be there. They want to be present, they want to enjoy their child’s play, their child’s journey in developing skills with other children. That is only positive and we can do that without interfering. So this isn’t about all or nothing. We can be present but not intrusive, and that’s a very positive, wonderful place to be.

So what that looks like with toddlers is, yeah, they need a lot of support because they are just starting this journey with other children. As children grow and develop, especially if we can give them these opportunities early in life, they will need us less and less to support them. But if we over-do, if we hover, we actually create a child who’s more dependent on us to intervene. So to support, rather than hover — that sweet spot — here’s how it looks.

She brings up fighting over a toy. Let’s do that one first.

So let’s say I’m sitting on a bench at the park. I see my child who I’ve ideally been observing, so I have a very good sense of where they’re at in this journey and what they struggle with. I see them approaching a child who has a toy. If I know that my child might be the one to reach out and take the toy, then I’m going to slowly walk closer, put myself close so that I can intervene as needed. Slowly because I’m calm, I’m trusting and, then, because I don’t know this parent and I don’t know their philosophy or how they feel about things, I am definitely not going to let my child take that toy away.

So there I am. I’m close. I’m watching/ I’m relaxed, and I see my child now is reaching for that toy. I gently put my hand in between to block that or I stop their hand with my hand and I say, “Ooh, it looks like you’re interested in that.” That’s all I know. I don’t know that my child really wants that. I don’t know they want to play with that. All I know is that they’ve reached out, “Looks like you’re interested in that toy,” meanwhile, my hand is there to prevent anything from happening. Then I wait, breathing, not feeling sorry for my child, not feeling concerned about this other child because I’m there and I am supporting however this conflict goes for my child.

So let’s say the other child holds on tighter to that toy. Then I would reflect, what we call sportscasting, saying to my child more than the other child, “It looks like she’s holding onto that. It seems she wants that.” I’m not trying to talk my child out of wanting what my child wants. I’m not trying to fix it or make it all stop. I’m okay with allowing my child and this other child to be in a moment. And the moment could last a long time because children take these situations in much more slowly than we do.

So I’m not rushing to worrying about something going wrong. I’m totally there. I’m allowing the emotional space children need, and the cognitive space to figure out what they feel or what they think about this in a safe manner.

And then maybe my child moves on to something else. Or maybe she’s upset and looks at me and shares with me that she isn’t happy with this result. That I would reflect too, “Ah, it seems like you, you didn’t like that, that she held on.” I’m not judging either child. I’m just open, observant and reflecting.

That looks very different from just watching children struggle, and it allows the children to do some really important things: begin to understand the situation, feel disappointed maybe. But what they definitely won’t feel is unsupported by us. And it says at least part of what she’s hoping to communicate to her child: I see you struggling and struggles are safe. They’re not something I have to rescue you from.

The other part this parent says at the end, “And I want to help you so badly.” I would look at that, because that is the little unhealthy piece of this. We want to help so badly because we see this as a serious problem and something we need to rescue our child from. It’s that perception that can get in our way, and it’s not a healthy perception for our child’s process in learning to work through struggles. I don’t believe that’s our child’s true experience either. Young children are quite ready to engage in conflict. They don’t have this negative perception of it that a lot of us have as adults. And I’m including myself, I will do anything to avoid a conflict. Children don’t have that. They aren’t thinking, “Something terrible is happening here,” even when there’s yelling and both pulling on a toy.

Let’s say that a child wants to take a toy that my child has. Now, firstly, I wouldn’t have my child bring personal toys into a public setting like that. I just wouldn’t put my child in that situation. If a child brings a toy, I would say, “I’m going to keep this toy here with me and you can stay with me and play with the toy or go out there with the other children. It’s up to you.” But let’s say this is a communal park toy and I want to allow my child to be able to feel confident working through struggles. If another child is coming up to my child and grabbing the toy, I would come close, calmly, not wanting to help my child so badly because I see this as a negative, harmful thing to my child. I’m there to allow that child to maybe take the toy out of my child’s hands and then I’m going to reflect any reaction that my child has, not jumping to conclusions that this is a traumatic event, but just what I see, for sure.

So let’s say the other child takes the toy and my child screams, “Whoa, you didn’t like that. You were holding that and now she has it. Shoot, you really wanted that,” letting my child have feelings around it, empathizing. But not seeing this as a deeply sad event. Because my child came to a park knowing there were probably going to be other children there, and that this wasn’t a time where they would be sitting with the same toy for as long as they wanted like they can do at home. Children are very aware that they’re in a different kind of setting. It’s really okay for children to feel what they feel. But yes, they need our support.

Now, this parent says, “They look right at us expecting, needing, wanting our help.” Interestingly, because I work with children, in this kind of situation all the time in the RIE classes that I teach, which start from infancy and can sometimes go to age three and a half or even four. When the children aren’t used to adults fixing the situation for them or rescuing them in some way, then they don’t tend to look to the adults. They tend to stay in the situation that they’re in with the other child and not look away for that kind of help. So when children do that, it’s actually the result of parents teaching them that this is a scary situation that they need us to fix. It doesn’t have to be part of the process, but it happens and that’s okay. We’re not going to get anywhere by feeling that we’ve made mistakes and that we can’t go anywhere from here. We certainly can, but just understanding where that’s coming from.

So if my child is struggling, I see something escalating and they’re looking at me, that’s a wonderful opening for acknowledging. Let’s say both children are holding onto the toy, “Yeah, I see you both holding onto that.” I’m not going to let them grab each other’s hands or push each other away, but I will let them both hold onto a toy in an accepting environment.

If it was my child taking the toy, because I don’t know other people’s philosophies and I don’t want my child to be looked down on that way,  it’s just not going to reflect positively on my child, then I wouldn’t let them grab the toy. But let’s say that my child had it and the other child is grabbing at it and now they’re both grabbing at it and I’m allowing it to happen. I can’t control what this other parent does, but what I will do is: I won’t let either child touch each other or hurt each other. I will put my hand in the way of that and say, “Ah, you want to take her hand off? I’m not going to let you do that, but yeah, I see you want that too and you want that. You both want that.”

I’m not taking sides. I’m not judging. I’m not feeling bad for them. The way that we perceive situations is what our child will learn to believe about them.

So this parent says, “Expecting, needing, wanting our help.” So “expecting,” that’s the result of us being the rescuer in the past. “Needing,” that I would question because they don’t need our help. They just need our support. Helping too much in that fixing-it way can create a sort of need for that to be repeated, but that’s a need that’s not healthy for our child in this process.

Surprisingly, from what I’ve seen in the 20 something years that I’ve been observing children engaging this way, they really don’t.want our help. They want to be in that interaction. You’ll see children getting in those struggles and then now they’re going up and sort of creating it again with another child and that will tell us, that should tell us, Wow. They are interested in what goes on with other children. That’s what they’re working on here. They’re not working on if they get a toy.

Sometimes in the classes I work in and also with my children at home, I would see that there’s another one right over there, this exact same toy. I don’t rush to telling the child that. But if a conflict is continuing and I think oh, maybe that child really does want that item, then I will say, “I see another one over there if you’re interested.” And nine times out of 10 they don’t want that one. They only want the one that the other child has, even though it’s the exact same toy.

So what does that tell us? That they are interested in learning about struggle, learning about conflict. They’re that healthy.

So when this parent says, “It feels like they’re purposefully watching them struggle and kind of laughing at them by not helping them,” that’s not at all what children will feel. They will feel very supported because you are supporting them to be in that struggle. You’re supporting their feelings, however somebody feels. If somebody had every toy in the whole park and now they still want another one, I’m not going to judge that child. They’re working on what they’re working on. And again, if we can allow children to build these skills and support them to build these skills as toddlers, then we can trust their competence as four-year-olds, as five-year-olds.

She says, “I wish I knew a really great way to say ‘I see you struggling.'” So all we have to do to say that is to be observant, to see our child struggling and perceive this as learning, and something that we want them to learn, not rescue them from. Children will feel about it and sense that we’re saying exactly what we actually feel about it. That’s really our work. Besides these details of intervening with those calm, physical blocking, sometimes just the minimal that we need to do to be comfortable and confident about the situation, that it’s not going to cross lines. But in the meantime, it’s healthy for children to figure out what to do and what to do next and be there, find a solution or not. Sometimes it’ll be left hanging. Sometimes a child will be left very upset and more often than not that child is exhausted, too hungry. They were already in a dysregulated state. The struggle just tipped that off for them. They’re not traumatized unless we are fearful.

So the, “I want to help you so badly,” part of this parent’s wish is the one I would look at and try to understand where that’s coming from. The rest of this, the message that this is good for you to figure out, yes, absolutely. And that’s the way children understand it. They sense what we’re feeling, and our behavior will come out of what we’re feeling. The way we feel about struggles is at the root of this. And the belief we have in our child as a capable human being that can have the age-appropriate disappointments and upsets and win sometimes, lose sometimes (if children even see it that way), all the experiences of childhood safely and with our support.

Now, I just want to quickly touch on the situation of shared equipment at the park because I realized I didn’t cover that at all.

So if there’s a slide or a seesaw, a swing or some other kind of equipment that two children want to use, that would be the only time that I would honor who got there first. If we even notice that, sometimes we won’t even see what happened. So here’s how I would handle it if two children were trying to get on a swing. Let’s say if I knew that my child was there first, then I would gently block the other child from getting on and say, “Oh, you want to get on this too and she’s here. Sorry, I can’t let you.” So not judging that child, not being angry at that child at all, but just setting that limit for safety reasons actually, if nothing else. Children lining up to get on a slide would be the same, “Ooh, I can’t let you push in front of them,” and that would be my child or the other child. This again will all depend on what we’ve observed.

So ideally, we are observing, and if we didn’t see it then it’s really okay to make that judgment call. My tendency would be to err on the side of letting the other child go up first and blocking my child from interfering with that. Again, this is safety, so there’s a good reason that we need to do that.

So let’s say my child is trying to climb up a slide, but then I notice there are other children wanting to slide down. I would help my child move away first, putting my hand there and saying, “Ooh, can you move? I see they want to come down,” giving a moment and then if my child doesn’t move, I would say, “I’m going to have to move you to the side.” Then again, acknowledging and welcoming whatever feelings my child has around that. If my child had a big blow up in response for me, that would tell me that, “Ooh, I think my child is tired, hungry, can’t be in this situation right now very easily.”

If my child was sitting at the top of the slide not going down and there were other children again, I would say, “I need you to go down now or I can help you move away.” So not rushing, giving my child that moment, but definitely being there. So I’m not just leaving the children to fight it out. That’s safety and also manners that children do need to know. It’s not natural to understand how to share equipment. That is something that we do need to teach our children by showing them that we’re there to help them when they can’t help themselves.

None of this is about putting more pressure on parents: Oh, gosh, we’ve got to make these struggles happen. This is about taking your moments when you can, when they come. There’ll be a lot of situations where you can’t allow for any struggle to happen. But if we can identify and be ready for the opportunities that our child does have, then we can honor those and facilitate them.

I hope some of that helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the books section of my website. Or you can go to the books section of my website. can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble an apple.com.

Also, my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com. 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. Sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


1 Comment

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

  1. Chloe Tham says:

    Hi Janet

    You probably receive tons of email but hopefully you’ll get around to reading this. I just want to thank you from the very bottom of my heart for what you do. I am a first time parent. I desperately want to be the best parent for my child; not a perfect parent, just the best one for him. In my quest to be the best parent for him, I had read so many conflicting parenting philosophy. I was so lost. I still am sometimes.

    After listening to your podcasts and reading your books, I felt as something in me just “clicked”. You are amazing in explaining what respectful parenting means and sharing real life examples.

    I have slowly gone from feeling exhausted, guilty and frustrated most of the time when spending time with my toddler to enjoying his company. I no longer fear or get easily frustrated with his tantrums.

    I sometimes even welcome the meltdowns because I know he needed to express his feelings and I feel very privileged to be able to support him.

    It is not always like this and I have moments or days when I still struggle and feel lost too. On days like that, I would constantly remind myself that I am only human and that I need to be kind to myself first if I were to teach my little one about kindness.

    Thank you so very much for helping me find joy in parenting my toddler. I only wish I had known about your work way earlier.

    I hope you will continue to share your teachings so that more parents can benefit from this.

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