Could NOT forcing a toddler to share help with sharing conflicts? (Part One)

Could NOT forcing my Children to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts? (Part One)  ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

When I fell pregnant only five months after my first daughter, Lucy, was born, I was reassured by EVERYONE not to worry because my children would be the best of mates and that whilst the age gap would be initially difficult it would be worth it to see them happily play together when they got past the newborn stages. It came as quite a disappointment, therefore, when having reached a stage of mobility (about eight months of age) coupled with an inherently curious nature, my youngest daughter, Penny, came up against enemy number one – her big sister (about 20 months)! I guess I hadn’t really done the maths or I could have pre-empted this phase and perhaps coped better when it first hit us. Lucy had reached a psychosocial crisis stage typified by egocentrism (aka the terrible twos) just as Penny was beginning to investigate her surroundings using more tactile and explorative techniques than just sight, sound and smell. This combination was to prove to be a highly volatile one fraught with highly stressful situations, many tears and tantrums and a generally miserable household.

In his article on Simple Psychology, Sean McLeod states that

” egocentrism refers to the child’s inability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. According to Piaget, the egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear and feel exactly the same as the child does”.

For Lucy, this meant that whatever existed in our household was hers. If Penny had it, she wanted it. If Penny looked like wanting it, she wanted it and if she was already playing with it, Penny should not even look in her direction because it was hers and Penny couldn’t have it! Sharing was not something that Lucy was interested in doing unless it was absolutely on her terms.

Luckily for us, unlike many other critical moments throughout our daughter’s infancy, we were by now fairly well versed in the RIE approaches. When I started to realise that this sharing drama was something that was going to be an issue in our household for the foreseeable future, I read up as much as I could on the best ways to handle these situations so that it was respectful of both our daughter’s needs and took into consideration both of their stages of development. The overwhelming advice given for this exact situation is to let the toddler take the toys, often the younger child won’t mind as this is symbolic of ‘play’ for this age group and developmental stage. So following this advice, I let Lucy take toys from Penny and I diligently sportcast each occasion, following Magda Gerber’s guiding wisdom to acknowledge the interactions of children in a matter-of-fact way. Initially, this played out as described in the examples I had read. Lucy would see Penny with a toy, Lucy would move to take the toy and Penny would seemingly, not mind and move onto a different toy.

After a short time, however, Penny, who was used to playing with single items for extended period of times, showed some annoyance at having her playthings taken. This grew to anger and then full blown distress anytime Lucy even approached her play area. It was at this point that my resolve to let them work through their conflicts themselves waned. I could see that Penny was never able to engage with anything that interested her for much longer than the time it took for Lucy to notice that she had something and make her way straight over there. It grew increasingly distressing when Lucy would snatch things aggressively and then put them out of reach of Penny before returning to her own play. She was not interested in playing with these toys, she just simply did not want Penny to have them. I started trying to intervene in the girl’s struggles and did not allow Lucy to take everything from Penny. It was clear pretty quickly, however, that this was not effective either. When I would put a ‘block’ between Lucy and the toy, she would then try to lash out at Penny. With increasing acts of violence occurring in these situations, I knew I needed to seek some help. After contacting Janet Lansbury, an RIE specialist who trained under Madga Gerber, I received advice that helped me to reassess the situation before moving forward. I came to the realisation that there was more than one issue at play here. There was Lucy’s perfectly normal egocentricity steering her behaviours as well as a deeper issue of sibling rivalry and jealousy that was the driving force behind her aggression and persistent interference in Penny’s play.

Armed with a newfound understanding of these behaviours, I began to approach the situations somewhat differently. Instead of seeing Penny as the sole victim in these conflicts, I began seeing Lucy as a victim also. She was a victim of her own psychosocial crisis of egocentricity as well as of another situation she was finding difficult to cope with – being a big sister. So I reverted to allowing Lucy the freedom to take Penny’s things from her whilst always commentating on the situations: “Penny had the trolley and now Lucy has it. Penny is crying now”. I could see the look of contemplation in Lucy’s eyes as I spoke aloud the actions as they were occurring. I was always careful to acknowledge Penny’s feelings in these situations also: “Penny are you feeling frustrated that you cannot play with the trolley?” I had released my own anxieties and doubts about how to approach the situations which I am sure the highly sensitive girls picked up on. Gradually, I began to see small changes in Lucy’s behaviour. Very occasionally, after careful thought in the aftermath of one of their exchanges, Lucy would toss something Penny’s way and say ‘here you go, Penny’. This was a huge step for Lucy and seemed so much more meaningful and authentic than me forcing her to get something for Penny or making her give a toy back to her.

At the same time I was practicing keeping my cool in what were often quite physical and emotional exchanges, I was working on helping Lucy through some strong feelings surrounding her role as a sibling, a big sister. Janet Lansbury conveniently posted a fabulous article around this time, with some key points for helping transition toddlers into this role. She highlighted the need to acknowledge the feelings of the toddler, Lucy, relating to the times when she felt the need to act out towards the baby, Penny, as well as bringing up the notion with Lucy that it is hard being a big sister sometimes and that I understand and want to help her.

“When children act-out with the baby — kissing or patting the baby too hard or jumping on the bed next to her — after calmly but confidently stating the boundary (“I can’t let you…”), the parent can ask matter-of-factly, “Are you feeling rough toward the baby right now? Are you upset that the baby’s here? Big sisters often feel that way. But I’m going to help you get down from the bed. I’d love for you to sit on my lap or jump on the floor next to me.”

b. Casually bring up the subject of negative feelings as often as possible: “Being a big sister is very hard sometimes. It’s normal to get angry at the baby or at mom or dad, feel sad, worry or just be upset and not know why. If you feel any of those things I want to know. I will always understand, love you and want to help you.”

I know this advice seems to focus on acts with babies, but I simply adapted them to suit my situation. When I could see that Lucy’s interference with Penny’s play was persistent or getting aggressive, not because she was just interested in Penny’s toy but rather, she was having a hard time with Penny in general and was testing boundaries, I would ensure I used some of the words Janet suggests above. Initially, these words escaped me at critical moments but after placing cue cards around the play area, I was soon able to speak confidently to Lucy about how it can be difficult being a big sister and how I understand how she feels. I also took the opportunity during calm moments throughout the day to talk more about these feelings and how I much I love her no matter how she feels or what she does; always assuring her that I would not let her hurt Penny and would always help her when she was feeling this way.

The last strategy I employed in my quest to support my children through this tough phase of their childhood was probably the most critical. It was to develop immeasurable patience; realising that none of the strategies I was adopting were cures for fixing a sharing problem but rather tips for guiding my children safely and securely through their struggles so that when they were developmentally ready to share of their own volition, their relationship with each other would remain in tact and that their experiences at this time could be felt as opportunities to develop conflict resolution, negotiation and resilience without gaining feelings of resentment, shame or helplessness in the process.

A good five months since the sharing issue first arose in our household (one month since being more confident and resolute in our approach), there has been some truly astounding developments. We have noticed over the past couple of weeks some changes in Penny’s reactions to having her play things taken. Using the trolley example, Penny (12 months) will be happily pushing her trolley around the house before Lucy sees her and takes it from her, pushing it off in another direction. Penny immediately cries out loudly, strongly; clearly upset over having her beloved trolley taken from her. Within 20 seconds of the initial point of take over, with barely enough time to finish sportcasting the event, Penny stops crying and moves quickly to another toy. As predicted, Lucy leaves the trolley and makes for the newly acquired toy. Penny relinquishes this toy without so much of a whimper before quickly darting back to the trolley and resuming pushing it happily around the house. Lucy is left holding the other toy looking thoroughly hoodwinked by her younger sister. She has never yet gone back for another go at the trolley in that moment. It is abundantly clear that Penny has used every experience of having her toys taken to slowly develop a strategy that allows her to play with her toys in peace. This doesn’t always happen but it happens enough for us to know that it is not a coincidence.

Lucy continues to monopolise the household toys on a daily basis but there is less conviction in her actions and she seems less desperate in her need to assert this power over her sister. More frequently now, we see Lucy bringing things to Penny to play with, rather than taking her toys. I always knew that this was a phase Lucy would eventually grow out of but my concern was whether such a prolonged period of being on the receiving end of Lucy’s egocentricity would have a negative effect on Penny’s relationship with her big sister. I am now nothing but certain that both girls will emerge from this period full of confidence not only in each other and themselves but in us as their trusted parents.

For more reading on this topic you may enjoy:

Could NOT Forcing a Toddler to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts? (Part Two) ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

7 Things I Should Know About Helping my Children to Share (From my Toddler Coach) ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

About Kate Russell

Hi, my name is Kate. I have been a Physical Education/ Maths teacher for 12 years and am currently taking some time out to be a Mum. I have two beautiful girls aged 2 and 1 (13 month age gap). I have learned that there is so much more to parenting than 'going with your instincts' and treasure all the rewards my children present to me everyday. I have a passion for sports and have recently discovered an addiction to sewing. Thank you for taking some time out to read my ramblings :)
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25 Responses to Could NOT forcing a toddler to share help with sharing conflicts? (Part One)

  1. Jack and Sarah are still learning to share at 4 and 2yrs old. I too read about not controlling the situation and forcing sharing because it was very counter-productive. The thing that is working well at the moment is little reminders to speak to each other. I say what I see and then remind Jack and Sarah to speak to each other and tell each other what they want. Usually one will take something and the other will cry. But at 4 and 2 yrs old they are very capable of talking to each other. So I say, ‘what are you trying to tell Sarah?’ at which point Jack will say something like ‘I’m still playing with that Sarah, can I have it back please?’ and more often than not she will give it back. I’ve found that if I remind them to talk to each other they are able to sort the situation out themselves. Sometimes they do this step on their own without me which is really encouraging too :)

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    • That’s a great idea to have them talk to each other, Kate. It won’t be too long before Penny can talk and verbalise her emotions. At this stage, rarely does Penny take things from Lucy but if she does and lucy is upset, I will certainly remember to ask her what she is trying to tell Penny. Xx

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  2. I really like this post and the way you have approached this issue. I have twins, so both at the same stage at the same time which is not easy when it comes to sharing. I agree that forcing sharing isn’t the way to go – I used to teach 3- and 4-year-olds and helped them learn ‘conflict resolution’ instead. It’s a bit like settling down in a cafe with a nice slice of chocolate fudge cake, only to be told you have to share it with the person on the next table. I would be most put out, I can tell you. I don’t tend to let my two take things from each other (again, because they are the same age and they both definitely mind) so if the taker is then upset and I talk about why, the other one will often hand it over quite quickly, like your Lucy! It’s really lovely to see that they are realising they don’t like the other one to be upset. We also have a few things which belong specifically to them – I think that’s important because they *are* at that egocentric stage. Then if my little boy wants to play with something that belongs to his sister I am helping them learn to ask if that’s ok first. I don’t know how that sits with the RIE approach, I have only just discovered it, but from what I have read so far I think quite a bit of it is similar to the way I have done things since my teaching days – respecting the child and helping them understand their emotions. We looked at Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence when I was doing my teacher training so I think perhaps that’s where some of my approach comes from.
    Sorry for the reeeeaaallly long comment!!

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    • Thank you, Eleanor, for you lovely long comment :). I love the idea of helping them to learn to ask if they want to play with a particular toy. We have just started doing that here too and I try to model this with the girls as well by always asking if I can have what they have rather than just taking it from them, especially if it is something I don’t want them to have. Twins would indeed be difficult with both of them having that need to take from each other at the same time. Do you find that their struggles are quite even though? I find ours’ are quite one-sided with the younger one having little defence against her older sister. Thank you again for reading. xx

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  3. Marisa says:

    Janet had also been of tremendous help to me and therefore my family. My daughters are 3 and 1 (15 months gap) and your story could have been mine. Their relationship has deepened in time but there were months that were so incredibly disheartening . . . I whole-heartedly agree they will radiate confidence.

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  4. i would worry that the repetition of these behaviors (without any feedback from the parents to the children) may eventually also create a rooted pattern of interaction in the relationship between the siblings (which actually happens a lot, sometimes lasting till adolescence and dominating the shaping of relationship between siblings). i would not feel comfortable about having the older child getting used to practice “oppression” of the younger one, and even if the child is only being egocentric, i would not feel comfortable either about having the younger child loosing the feeling of safety, anticipating oppression, and actually submitting to it, each time s/he holds a toy or do an activity in the presence of the older child. Whether it agrees with RIE or not, i would certainly resolve to interference, however soft it may be, to reinforce both children toward an understanding that negotiation is not to be equated with a display of power (remember that the younger girl might eventually grow to replicate the behavior of her older sister with other children). The concern here is that this approach focuses on resolving the trouble between the siblings, but does nothing to handle the motivation and sentiment of abuse, on the basis that the child is not really being abusive but only egocentric. But even if this is true, the behavior and the event, and the neural activity that is associated with it, are abusive still; and the younger girl cries and resists precisely because she feels oppressed and threatened. On the other hand, the notion that egocentricism “validates” oppressive behavior is erroneous, because by means of positive reinforcement techniques for both children, the older child is able to both understand and feel that the happiness and freedom of the younger child do not necessarily contradict his/hers. This is the most significant step that the older child needs to take, and i’m not saying it will be easy, but it is one of those first things the ego learns about; the world is full of others and they are just as valuable is you are. The argument that egocentricism does not allow for this understanding to unfold is erroneous also, and the RIE technique of “narration”, to narrate in plain language the emotional conditions and relational logic of the social situation in question, is indeed very helpful in that regard, and that is why you get to see this contemplative look on the child’s face afterwards, internalizing and digesting something that is no longer operational, but rational and abstract, and it works out most of the time, especially when negative reinforcement is applied “each time” the child reverts back to abusive behavior. The delicacy of this matter comes from the fact that the older child feels that attention has been withdrawn from him/her and directed toward the other, interference regarding them “taking revenge” should therefore be indeed reassuring to them, this reassurance does not come about by “letting them” take revenge nor by suppressing the behavior in defense of the younger child; it comes about by granting the older child a renewed emotional attention of the quality that will enable him/her to feel “at home” once more, and by persuading him/her at the same time to develop alternative feelings and understanding with regard to the social situation of sisterhood or brotherhood, mostly via positive reinforcement of any form of negotiation so long as it does not involve abuse, and a sensitive application of negative reinforcement in the event force and abuse are being resolved to. The key here is to realize that the abusive dynamics of this relationship must never develop into a pattern that eventually root itself in the consciousness, and also to understand that it is not supposed to be easy, the big lesson of learning that ego and the world are not one and the same thing.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful post, Maysara. I have had many sleepless nights over the same concerns that you have expressed here. In fact, in my letter to Janet, I asked her whether this persistent toy taking could be considered abuse and I was concerned my youngest would be scarred from the emotions she had to endure throughout this time. Janet was very reassuring in her reply to me that this was a very common occurrence throughout households and Penny would not be affected in the way you describe. I am always very careful to acknowledge Penny’s feelings during these confrontations and stay with her to comfort her for as long as she needs me – which is often not long. Often now when I say to Lucy “Penny is feeling sad that she doesn’t have her toy anymore”, she will come over and give Penny a little kiss and cuddle. She sometimes returns the toy but more often tries to console Penny. This shows me that her intent is not to hurt Penny and that she does not like to see her sister sad. I am confident that using the strategies I have outlined in my post, both girls are given enough support through this difficult and emotional time. Thank you again for taking the time to express your concerns. xx

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      • well your replay is reassuring indeed. The post however may still direct parents to handle this delicate matter erroneously, imho, especially if they are already interested in or following RIE! i have observed this in general, where the RIE philosophy of “do less observe more” is perfectly applicable in parent-child relationship, i do not always find it equally applicable with regard to child-child relationship. And whereas in your particular case the period of letting Lucy take Penny’s toys by force passed without subsequent trouble, in many other observed occasions the opposite happens (conflict intensifies), and the dynamics of the relationship between siblings falls into problematic patterns that persist till much older age. I would say even though you have a successful story, still i would not advice others to follow it. The sooner a child realizes the impact of his/her actions especially on another child, the better for both children. Especially more when this action is of an abusive or oppressive nature.
        Most appreciatively :)

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      • plus i would really be interested to see what Janet would think of this discussion. She is gifted beyond doubt and have such natural sensitivity and intuition regarding several complex matters.

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  5. Shooza says:

    What I have found helpful is asking them to take turns with the toys. And although this not working perfectly at all times, we see them waiting for their turn and asking the other if they can have their turn. We have also seen these strategies emerge. Here when the big sister wants something the younger is having she will go and get one of his favorite things, the younger would obviously dart towards that leaving what she wants. We let them sort these out most of the time. But when one has a favourite toy, we also try to explain that it is a favourite like how everyone has their favourite things and does not like sharing at times. We never force sharing but always encourage taking turns. This is working well. I’ve even advised by sister on this and she said its working for her too.. but like everyone has said.. there is no one solution for anything in parenting :-)

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    • Hi Shooza, it sounds like you are doing a great job at talking your kids through their conflicts. I also believe if something is working for you and it is respectful that it is absolutely the way to go. We also ask the girls to take turns but usually only with bigger items such as the little cubby cardboard box they play in, or the floor swing that they climb in and out of. I guess they are not really things that can be taken but rather things that only one person can be involved with at a time. Lucy understands this concept much better than Penny and is actually more obliging and cooperative in these situations than her younger sister. Thank you for sharing your story. xx

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  6. Sis says:

    Great to see I’m not alone on this sibling thing… I have a girl and a boy, 14 mths apart.
    Very good to come across your blog and about Magda Gerber, I had heard of her but now I need to read more and understand her thoughts and tips…Funny how things that you don’t need may not be interesting to you at times.
    Since reading this post I have tried to let them sort things out,and it has worked well most times :-)
    It has actually amazed me what kids are capable of, and more than anything, how much care and love my older daughter has for her brother… Without me intervening so fast, she has approached him, cuddled him and offered him other toys to play with … There is definitively more laughter between them …

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    • Hi Sis,
      You most definitely are not alone with the sibling issues thing – haha! It’s particularly hard with the close age gap. How old are your two now? It’s wonderful that your daughter is showing those caring gestures all of her own accord. It’s so much more joyful when they do it on their own rather than it being forced, don’t you think?
      Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophies have been an absolute lifesaver in our household. I have written about some of the other ways it has helped us in my other posts if you get a chance to have a read. I would also highly recommend following Janet Lansbury’s Facebook page too if you don’t already. She is amazing at providing parents with useful ideas for implementing RIE and being a respectful parent. Like you, since changing some of the ways I do things, I am amazed on a daily basis at the things my children are capable of. Thank you for sharing your story. Kate xx

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  9. It’s inspiring that a one year old will come up with strategies like that! :)

    I have twins that are nearly one year old and I wonder how this will work for them. Thy often take toys back and try from each other but I don’t believe it’s out of malice…but I’d still like to know how to handle the situation when it comes up. This is good food for thought.

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