Toddlers Spontaneously Share: Adult Intervention Unneeded

February 15, 2011 · 26 comments

Children sharing at RIE playdate

The kids loved their RIE playdate!

Itook my boys to a La Leche League meeting last week, and my son took toys from everyone.

It was a disaster. I was stressed, the boys were stressed, and everyone around us was stressed. One of the mothers confronted me about making my oldest son share, and all I could think to do was mumble something about how I didn’t do that.

Yes, that’s right. I don’t force my kids to share.

It doesn’t always work well when we’re out and about, but at home, the change is tremendous. The boys, who I often felt like a referee for, get along. Instances of hitting, smacking, and other physical altercations have gone down.  A lot.

In recent months I’ve dabbled with RIE — a philosophy treating children as “capable people deserving of respect”, as described by the mother of the movement, Magda Gerber. I’ve backed off on the playground, set up routines to get everyone in the house more sleep, and learned how to talk through situations instead of intervening.

Those experiences have been incredibly rewarding and enlightening. As I observe more and do less, my relationship with my children has changed from one of intervention to one of trust, and it’s absolutely fascinating to discover what they’re capable of.

One thing I noticed about the playground was how well children played together when their parents were otherwise occupied. They traded toys, took turns on the stairs up the slide, and waited patiently at the top to let others slide down.

My boys have mastered their social skills at the playground, but we’ve had more difficulty at indoor playgroups. With the close proximity to the action, it’s harder not to intervene.

I wanted to try it, though, so I asked my local facebook friends if anyone wanted to come over for a RIE playgroup. I linked to this article by Janet Lansbury that describes what I wanted to do. An acquaintance with two daughters the same ages as my boys said she’d try it, and we discussed over the phone the basic ground rules:

1. We would observe our children.

2. If there was a dispute over a toy, we would move closer and describe what was happening without judgment or intervening: “You’re sad because John has the toy now” “Mary is sad because she doesn’t have the toy anymore”.

3. Touching (to include grabbing) is allowed; hitting, pinching, biting, etc. are not and would be dealt with by moving close and saying something like “I’m not going to let you hit Katie”.

I was excited but nervous, and told the boys that friends would come over today. My oldest was thrilled and ran to the door every few minutes waiting for them to arrive.

They came in and started exploring. My friend and I stepped back. Her daughter picked up a toy, and my son immediately grabbed it away. My friend and I looked at each other, held our breaths, and didn’t say a word. Her daughter looked at him for a minute, then found another toy. He went over, looked at the toy she picked up, showed her the one he had, and they sat down together with a pile of blocks and played.

Neither my friend or I could stop smiling. We spent an hour and a half together, and there was no screaming or crying. A few toys were taken back and forth, but the children worked it out themselves. I got my camera out to capture the four of them (2 are 27 months and 2 are 10 months) playing at the abacus. The older two sat together counting, and the younger two watched and touched the beads. There was no pushing, shoving, hitting, or grabbing. It was amazing.

In many situations it’s difficult to buck conventional wisdom, but in this case I’m really glad I took the chance. Sharing is emphasized so strongly, but young children don’t understand possessions or have the self-control to keep from grabbing things. When we force them to do things they’re not ready for, we don’t acknowledge the capabilities they have in place for working out conflicts on their own.

I gave my boys an opportunity to figure out social interactions, and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The experience this morning was priceless, though. They exceeded all my hopes. If I hadn’t given them the chance, I never would have known how much they could do.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jespren February 15, 2011

All I have to say to this is: wish we were closer!
Oh, and I can subscribe to comments now, yea!


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 15, 2011

I wish we were closer too! I can’t wait to try this out with more friends. It was absolutely incredible, and we all had a fantastic morning.

Let me know how the comments subscription works. It works well on other sites, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed :)


3 Cheryl February 15, 2011

That’s so great! I have been trying to implement more RIE strategies at home as well. It’s inspiring to read about how well it worked for you.


4 janetlansbury February 15, 2011

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful discovery!!! (And the link to my post about baby playgroups!)

If you need any more encouragement…one of my most-read posts is about sharing: The S Word (Teaching Toddlers to Share)


5 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 15, 2011

Janet, I’ve read your sharing article multiple times and get something more out of it every time. I noticed this comment (a response to feedback on the post) for the first time:

“When you are in a park or public place, you obviously have no control over the behavior of other parents. It’s okay for your child to learn that others have different rules than you do; ‘broadcasting’ and acknowledging will help him to understand what’s happening. You might say,”The boy has been asked to give the toy to you and he’s upset about that,” or, “This family needs us to bring the toy back to the little girl. Can you do it, or should I?”

Modeling the respectful way you treat your child can have a positive effect on those around you.

When you are with adults that you are comfortable with, you can set the tone in a non-threatening way by asking them to join in your parenting experiment. At the beginning of a play date with a friend, or group of friends, you might say something like, “I’m reading about the benefits of allowing children to work out their social conflicts. Can we try that today?” ”

This is exactly what I need to know how to do, and will start doing. I was at a complete loss for how to appropriately respond to concerns from other parents while still respecting our own house rules. Thank you again for your wisdom!


6 janetlansbury February 15, 2011

You are so kind! Yes, I remembered writing something to that effect when you were asking me about the playground a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t remember where it was… Thanks for noticing! Parents ask about that in our classes all the time. In my own experience, it was sometimes tough to find the words in a tense moment, but it got easier with practice. :)


7 Melanie February 16, 2011

Love it! I’m so glad it worked out well (not that I really doubted it would) but it must be so rewarding for everyone involved, parents and kids alike. You make me look forward to so much, I’m glad to get a peek into your life and parenting styles.


8 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 16, 2011

Aw, thanks Melanie! I’ve got a post brewing about mothering mentors and why they’re invaluable as we travel our parenting journey. I’m so happy to share my experiences, especially the ones that have turned out well :)


9 Hybrid Rasta Mama - Jennifer February 16, 2011

What a GREAT post and what a tremendous idea to host a “no interference” playdate! I think I am going to round up my like minded mommy friends and give this whirl! I personally do not force my daughter to share or take turns because she does a fantastic job figuring it out on her own. I babysit my friend’s son and leaving those two to figure things out works just fine. In fact, the few times I did step in, both told me “no.” Ha! It is so important to let children find their way if they are able to do so peacefully (or with a small tussel now and again). Thank you for such a great post. I feel a post of my own coming on. I’ll be sure to link up with yours! :)


10 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 20, 2011

Thanks so much Jennifer! I’m excited to see how yours go. I’ve been thrilled with ours and love my son’s newfound confidence :)


11 AJ February 18, 2011

Sounds like this would work well on a small scale for a home playdate. I think the noise and stimulation of a large crowd of kiddos and moms can make the little ones go a bit crazy. If it devolves into constant toy snatching and running off just because someone else has something you don’t, rather than finding a toy and engaging with it and/or another kid, I think parents need to step in and guide.


12 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 20, 2011

You’re right AJ, sometimes children get whipped into a frenzy when there’s large numbers together, but sometimes a hands-off approach works even better in a crowd or when parents are paying attention to other things, because children have more leeway to work things out on their own.


13 Olivia February 19, 2011

I agree with your overall idea, and in fact we practice this in our home too; and as a result my kid’s get along and compromise/work out their issues really well with each other, which is a great thing for them since they are only 11 1/2 months apart. However, I also think it’s important to remember that not everyone follows the same path in parenting, some people (when in a public “play group” situation) expect other parents to still follow the “norm”, which would mean sharing with everyone. Children are selfish for the most part and want what they want when they want, but it’s important for them to learn that in some scenario’s they can’t have what they want right away, meaning no grabbing toys from other children just because ” they want it”. Part of this is also remembering that in some situations, the rules WILL be different, for instance a playdate/group hosted at another person’s home, the rule in their home may be that everyone share; therefore I find it very important to make sure they know that, while one rule may apply at our house, the same may not be true at someone elses house, or someone else’s group, so we have to learn to cope with the different scenarios! : D


14 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 20, 2011

Great points Olivia! I asked Janet Lansbury some ways to make sure children are respectful while still giving them leeway to work things out on her own. In addition to asking other parents ourselves to give the children an opportunity to hash it out (without hitting/hurting, of course), this is what she suggested (I’ve paraphrased her response to me):

We don’t want to assume anything about what our children are feeling. Instead of saying, “Mary is sad” we could say, “Mary is upset”. They may not be sad at all, only confused or interested or thoughtful or whatever. It can be worrisome for parents if they think their child is sad all the time on a play date. We often project too much! If a child doesn’t seem upset when a toy is taken, don’t comment on their feelings at all, just the facts. “David, you had that and now Katie has it.”

If any child is habitually taking toys away from others, I would stop him. It can become impulsive with some children and they need us to step in and say one of a couple of things, depending on the scenario. Try to get there first, just before it happens and say, “Are you asking her to use that toy? Please ask her.” See if he nods, speaks or asks her with his eyes. Then, the girl might either let go of the toy or pull it back closer to her indicating her answer. “She’s saying ‘no’. So, please make another choice.” Or, just put your hand in the way and say, “I don’t want you to take that away. You can use it when she’s done.” Just be matter-of-fact about it all, and if it keeps happening acknowledge, “You’re having a hard time. You want to take toys away today and I won’t let you. Please find another way to play, or we’re going to have to leave.” He may be letting you know through the behaviors that he’s tired and wants to leave.

I found Janet’s insights very helpful in navigating situations outside the house where people have different ways of teaching their children manners. She helped me understand what situations would be too much for my 2-year-old to navigate (especially when other adults are stepping in — that’s not really fair to expect a young child to know how to handle that), or if it’s just a situation that’s too much. I hope it’s helpful to you too!


15 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama March 24, 2011

I do this with Kieran (and have also been criticized), and I’ve seen the same things – that when I’m not there to step in, he is SO much more selfless and giving and willing to take turns. Janet’s insights (in the comment above mine) are great, and I have had to stop Kieran from taking things away from people when we have playgroups at our house – it’s always harder for kids to share their own things, isn’t it?


16 Lori Ann April 9, 2011

My only DC is just 1 but we had our first “sharing” experience last weekend while staying at a friend’s house with their 3 kids. I didn’t know I’d have to think about this one before she even learned to walk! DD’s been going through a phase where she wants to grab everything she sees and hold as many as possible toys at a time (at LEAST one in each hand, preferably two! I think she’s excited to have figured out this skill).

So when the youngest girl brought my DD something to play with and she grabbed it, I realized this could become an issue. DD took that toy, but wanted the one the girl had for herself, too. She took it away and the little girl looked at her surprised, but then went off and played with something else.

Later in the day, the girl was eating something and DD wanted it. She tried to grab for it just like she’d done with the two toys that morning, but this time the girl wasn’t going to give it up :-) She gently removed my DD’s arm off hers, and walked off to a distance where the snack couldn’t be reached. My DD did break down crying, but I brought her outside and she was fine. Very interesting to see how the dynamics of young children’s relationships go like that, and I’m glad that she’s getting that interaction since she’s currently an only child.


17 Suchada @ Mama Eve April 9, 2011

Wow Lori Ann, I love this description! It reinforces my belief that children learn when you let them (and within safe boundaries). Thank you so much for sharing it. :)


18 Olivia June 20, 2011

I’ve noticed this with my 2 yr old. She’ll have toy taken from her or get knocked down by a kid in the playground and she just seems to shrug it off. As long as she was really hurt she’s okay. Though, at only 2, I am trying to teach her about taking turns on playground equipment, mostly because I don’t want anyone to fall on the slide or get kicked by another kid on the swing.


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