Boys will be boys.....
February 17, 2005 4:50 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any advice for calming squabbling infants?

I have a 17 month old boy and he spends 3 days a week being looked after by a friend. She has a boy exactly the same age and the two of them have grown up spending a lot of time together, mainly at our friends' house, but also at ours and on daytrips and activities. They both have a full and varied social life and my son loves being with them.

Recently, the boys have started to have issues playing together. If one of them has a toy, then the other will want it, no matter what it is, or what he was doing beforehand. When this happens, attempts to get them to play together founder, as even if the playing could be co-operative or shared (lego, blocks, reading, etc) it causes distress to one or other child.

One of the children is very easily distracted, so he can be given something else to play with. However, the other child can't be. To make matters worse, he will instantly desire whatever has been used to distract or entertain the other.

To put it succinctly, one child nearly always wants what the other is playing with, not necessarily because its interesting, just that the other child has it. The other child would happily play with just about anything and is only possesive of two or three specific objects.

The issue arises at both children's homes and is not necessarily related to "ownership" of the toys.

The question is, how can we help them play together given this little stumbling block?

There's a lot of advice out there in childcare books and any tips or recommended authors will be gladly received. However, I am hoping we've got a super mom/dad/guardian/carer here who have some hands on experience and tips.

I'm being purposefully vague (I hope) as to which kid has the problem sharing/being distracted, but if knowledge of this is important to resolving the problem, I'll think about divulging.
posted by davehat to Human Relations (15 answers total)
That's a hard one, because sharing is this issue that gets a lot of parents freaked out and hyper-vigilant. At that age there will always be this struggle as kids learn the concept of "mine". It does get better as they grow up.

The only thing I can think of is trying to encourage a group activity like rolling a ball back and forth. Something that can demonstrate to the kids that sharing can be fun. But basically you just have to be patient and encourage the child who doesn't like to share. And then wait until they get older.
posted by jeremias at 5:32 AM on February 17, 2005

Sounds pretty normal to me. Just use common sense- if one of the boys is taking stuff away from the other, it may be time for the dreaded "time out". I think at three, it starts to be effective (although it's been a few years, so I may be a little hazy on the timing of that). It may be a little early, but I recommend The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian. It may help you understand their behavior as they move from being toddlers to boys.
posted by Doohickie at 5:33 AM on February 17, 2005

Yes, time outs can be effective at three. I started using timeouts with my daughter around 20 months. She didn't like it, but it was effective even that young. (Just keep the time-outs short when they're that little - I've heard one minute per year old.)
posted by raedyn at 6:07 AM on February 17, 2005

IMNASM, but . . .

You also might want to consider timeouts for the toy in question. I've found that tactic works quite well, as the boys can see the immediate consequence of their fighting, it removes the object in dispute, it gets their attention, and it quickly shows the aggressor that he is not getting the toy, no matter what. Yeah, it sucks for the more passive child, but what better way to start teaching the essential lesson that life is nowhere near fair. Also, what the others have said - this behavior is normal, and this too will pass.
posted by bibliowench at 6:49 AM on February 17, 2005

At 17 months, this is probably not too much of a problem. The activity you are describing sounds like experimentation through play, rather than a settled pattern of possessive behaviour. If it persists beyond the child's third birthday, then it might be time to come back to AskMeFi and ask for advice again.

At present, the best advice is probably the most obvious: adult participation in play, rapid intervention where necessary, and patient repetition of the message "share, share, share" -- "Remember what I told you? In this house we SHARE our toys with our friends" -- over and over and over. But there are other things you can do to reinforce the message. Here are some of the techniques I've tried with my two-year-old. I don't know whether they'll work for other people, but I'm happy to pass them on.

1. Don't do anything to threaten the child's sense of personal property -- i.e. allow him to feel confident that the food on his plate is "his" food and won't suddenly be snatched away from him, that his teddy is truly "his" teddy and will be given to him if he needs it, etc etc. I think (well, I hope) that a child who feels secure about this will be more ready to experiment with sharing other things. Mealtimes are a good opportunity to reinforce this message, if you give a running commentary as you serve the food: "here's Mummy's supper, and here's my supper, and here's .. (dramatic pause) .. YOUR supper!" (Be warned, this can become a habit, and I have caught myself giving a running commentary when I am eating out in a restaurant with other adults.)

2. Turn it into a game. My two-year-old loves to play the "mine and yours" game -- I snatch her comfort blanket away, saying "it's mine! it's mine!" and then she snatches it back gleefully, shouting "it's not yours! it's mine!", and so on, back and forth. (Of course you have to make a funny face to show it is all play-acting.) She is obviously fascinated by the way that an object can flick between "mine" and 'yours" in the blink of an eyelid. (Turn-taking is also an important step on the road to language, and this is a game which can be played even with a very small child -- saying "babababa" to him, then waiting for him to say "babababa" back to you, and so on.)

3. Reinforce the message through picture-books. Children are very quick to pick up on "happy" and "sad" as conveyed through facial expressions, and you can use this to draw a child into a story. "Do you think that little boy is happy? No, he's sad, isn't he? Why do you think he's sad? Maybe he's sad because the other boy has taken away his toy" -- and so on. You might try and get hold of a copy of When Connie Came To Play, by Jill Paton Walsh, which is all about a child who doesn't want to share his toys.
posted by verstegan at 7:02 AM on February 17, 2005

I really doubt a 17 month old would fully understand a timeout and why they are in time-out. In my experience, calmly taking the toy away and ignoring any fuss afterwards helps prevent it from happening again. They're just normal kids and they are learning their emotions and how to deal with them. Also, a limited vocabulary adds to the frustration.
posted by jasonspaceman at 7:06 AM on February 17, 2005

A bit of a side note on Timeout: A friend of mine in France says they don't do Timeout there; they do TimeIn, sort of. When their two-year old acts up, they tell him he is not allowed to participate with the group until he shapes up. So if they are hanging out in the kitchen, he can't hang out with them unless his behaviour improves. I like the concept of this because it puts a premium on good social behavior, rather than on going somewhere to be by yourself.
But I haven't tried it yet myself, because our child is only three months old.
posted by Alex Marshall at 7:11 AM on February 17, 2005

Again, this is extremely normal. Take comfort in that even though it is exasperating in the process. I agree-take the offending toy away.
A side note on time out. I have raised 5 kids and IMHO I think time out is useless at this age. This is not PC, but I found a light spanking at this age was the only thing effective. Not beating, but a swat. I will say, I spanked all of my kids as toddlers so now that they are ages 7-14, I don't have to and I haven't had to for a long time.
I have a wonderful relationship with my kids and I see no scarring of their psyche.
posted by davenportmom at 7:51 AM on February 17, 2005

I don't have much advice on how to handle it, but I wanted to point out that this is not so much a new playing problem, but just that both babies have reached an important developmental stage: self-awareness. Without self-awareness, the concept that a toy is "mine" is not possible.

But at this age, they're also not developmentally advanced enough to delay gratification for more than a few seconds... so, while you can lay the groundwork for concepts like sharing, the babies aren't going to be able to restrain themselves and voluntarily share for quite a long time.

I've heard that putting out a bunch of identical toys can help: ten wooden trucks, more than either baby can hoard. Or occupy the babies separately -- do they have to play together? Maybe they can be ten feet apart on the floor, each with a giant piece of paper and one red crayon.
posted by xo at 8:57 AM on February 17, 2005

I second other good advice, and again suggest tht 17 month olds are socially retarded and can't play together. It's just a normal developmental thing. My kids don't really play well *together* with kids their own age until around three. Your mileage, it may vary. Separate but equal sounds good, as mentioned above.
posted by mecran01 at 9:07 AM on February 17, 2005

What about play without toys? If kids that young play simple games with each other, hand games, games of moving around, saying simple words with each other & adults, listening to stories, etc. this might be a temporary solution, and would work well with the "remove the offending toy" suggestion since it sounds like all toys are "offending."
posted by lorrer at 10:14 AM on February 17, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you all for the advice. I appreciate that its a stage of development and not the end of the world. However, it is very frustrating for us adults as well as the kids.

I think the kids need to grow a bit before they are given the time out treatment. I feel that they wouldn't really grasp the message quite yet, though now I feel fully prepped to use it when they are a little older!

I like the idea of them having lots of the same toy and will look into this as they do have some of the same objects, but never together in the same place (some teddys, some books, some cars). I also like the idea of more non-toy play. They get a lot of this (singing, drawing, reading, action games) but perhaps we should look to focus on it for the short term.

I guess one of the main things we need to address is coping mechanisms for us parents. A few hours of this daily really tries the patience!

Thanks again everyone
posted by davehat at 10:51 AM on February 17, 2005

I just discussed the issue with my future wife, who is a honest-to-god professional expert in these issues (she's an early childhood consultant for a well-regarded group of preschools in Boston's metro west). Her take included a lot of observations made here:

This is perfectly normal, predictable behavior for 18 months. Kids that age are egocentric and learning to exert their wills. It isn't a conflict between two friends, because children of that age don't have friends in the sense that we have them-- to each child it's interaction between themselves and someone who fits into the broad description of "not my parents". But, she emphasized, friends is the next step. Gradual realizations of the needs of others will come and the kids will learn to share.

She stressed that the behavior is normal, healthy and can only effectively be resolved on an instance-by-instance basis by explaining the rules of conduct to the kids and stepping between them for a few minutes. It's going to be tedious for a few months, but the kids will be the better for it, both the aggressor and the more passive child.

The longer resolution, she said, comes from mental development that you can't hurry (but will develop soon enough anyway) and, just as important, modeling on the part of the adults (which you're doing just by being patient and correcting incidents when they flare). Again, the situation you described is normal and healthy even if it's bothersome for the adults involved.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:15 AM on February 17, 2005

Agree, time out is way too soon. Save that for > 24 months, you'll need it then.
Show simple examples of sharing between adults first, then extend it to the kids. Simple stuff - kid-friendly food, whatever.
Sometimes, 'Mine!' is something you can't reason with. I don't know how long this behavior typically lasts but it was a short time - two out of four (twins) were like this for a month, the others just didn't do that much.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:26 PM on February 17, 2005

...that is, with me and my kids. Good luck.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:29 PM on February 17, 2005

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