At a family gathering, you notice that your toddler and her cousin of the same age are fighting over a toy. As you probably anticipated, they are now crying. Your first reaction is to separate the tots from each other or you get mad at the kids for not sharing.
Either way, Janet Lansbury, a parenting expert and the host of the popular podcast Respectful Parenting, says it's not the best way to deal with the situation. “I realize that might seem like a good idea when they’re struggling — none of us like to see kids uncomfortable — but isn’t our goal for playdates, playgroups and preschool to encourage children to learn to play together?” she writes on her website article.
Lansbury argues that strict rules like “share” or “wait your turn” can pull kids apart rather than encourage them to socialize. As toddlers, children don’t know how to interact with others yet and forcing the rules on them won’t really work.
“Around the time he turns 2, your toddler will start to actively reach out to other children. But as with any other skill, he learns how to socialize by trial and error,” said BabyCenter.
Your little humans need to explore and enjoy the company of others at their own pace and through their own experiences. Trust that children are capable of working things out on their own if we let them, says Lansbury. Have you noticed how children can’t stay angry at each other for very long?
“Children need to take the lead. But we can absolutely be their assistants and provide a support function when they need it,” explains Dr. Laura Markham, a psychologist and parenting expert, in an article on Aha! Parenting.
Here are some things to remember during playdates that will also convince you to be more forgiving and laid back when it comes to playtime rules.
1. Have realistic expectations
Know that your child is developmentally too young to fully understand the feelings of other kids. So, he really can’t share yet. “A toddler is very egocentric at this stage, and this is why he refuses to share his toys — his prized possessions,” explains JP Sordan, a preschool teacher at Summit School in Taguig City.
“If kids think adults will snatch a toy away once the adult's random idea of ‘long enough’ has passed, you're modeling grabbing, and the child usually becomes more possessive. If the child is free to use the toy for as long as he wants, he can fully enjoy it and then give it up with an open heart,” says Dr. Markham.
2. Give gentle reminders instead
Strict rules, such as forcing a child to “share” may only backfire, but this doesn’t mean you can’t start introducing your child to considerate and kind behavior now.
According to psychiatrist Dr. David Sack, in an article for the Huffington Post, you can say something like, “You’re angry because you want wanted to play with that toy. I understand — it’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to throw things.” This way, he’ll know what he’s feeling is anger and, as an extension, be able to understand other children when they experience the emotion, too.
“If you continue to treat her with respect, she'll learn how to treat others the same way,” adds BabyCenter. “If you've been modeling considerate behavior all along, he's likely to show glimmers of it now, when his mind has begun to grasp the importance of being kind to others.”
3. “No hurting” should still be a strict rule
Lansbury says “no hurting each other” should still be a hard and fast rule. “When children are struggling over a toy, we move close to them for support and protection. We prevent hitting, pushing, pinching, biting or head-butting by blocking these actions with our hands or removing a child’s hand from another’s body,” she said.
Toddlers may hit, pinch or bite others because they don’t know how to express emotions like anger or frustration using words yet, said Dr. Markham. It’s then mom or dad’s job to set the limits that hurting others is not allowed.
When to worry
“If your toddler (1 to 3 years old) seems overly aggressive and is incapable of spending time with other children without biting, hitting, or pushing them, you may want to discuss these behaviors with his pediatrician,” says BabyCenter. “While all kids can become unfriendly to others, especially when they're fighting over toys or are overly tired, it's unusual for them to be aggressive all the time.”
But, try not to get too anxious yet, parent. Struggles with “playing nicely” and interacting with others are all part of your child's journey to building his own relationships. Adds BabyCenter, “When your child understands how to empathize with other children and appreciates how much fun it is to have playmates, she'll develop truer, more lasting friendships.”