My favorite part of our Christmas celebration, this year, happened while I was in the next room. After two straight days of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins (and an embarrassing amount of both presents and cookies), the festivities were over and we had just arrived home.
As mothers do, I went straight to work, rolling up ribbon worth saving, breaking down boxes, and packing up gift bags to be reused.
And, as toddlers do, Bug and Babygirl went straight to their work, unpacking the Bug’s new tools to “fix” the cardboard playhouse their Tia had sent from Pennsylvania.
While I pulled out the laundry from the overnight bag and found homes for new toys, I could hear them in the living room, cheerfully working together.
“I am all done with the hammer. Can I have the pliers now, please?”
“Can I have a turn on the ladder when you are all done?”
“Be careful. This part is pretty wobbly.”
“Can you reach another screw for me? Thanks.”
At one point, I heard my three year old explain to his little sister, “The person on the ladder holds the tool box. I’m on the ladder now, so I need the tool box,” and paused when I heard her answer, “No, I’m still using it.”
Aware of the potential for conflict, I listened closely to gauge whether they needed me. There was a pause, and then the Bug responded calmly with, “Ok. Then I need a hammer.”
“Ok. Thanks,” Babygirl said, acknowledging her brother’s willingness to bend the rules and, I assume, handing over the hammer.
They went back to their work and I went back to mine, smiling to myself as I continued to eavesdrop on their play. My thoughts drifted to last Christmas and the struggle over their new toy kitchen that provided the jumping off point for my most-read blog post, Isn’t Anyone Going to Help Her?!, in which I wrote about allowing my children to resolve their own conflicts and the lessons I hope they learn in the process.
It was all so new then. Babygirl had just turned one – just started walking – and she and the Bug were increasingly experimenting with how to play together rather than just alongside each other. This shift in their relationship brought tremendous joy, but also a lot of frustration, a lot of learning, and, if I’m honest, a fair amount of shoving. I struggled to find ways to support them through conflict without swooping in and “fixing” it for them. Solving their problems might have made things easier in the short term, but I knew would only serve to deepen the divide in the long term. My goal is and was, always, to point them toward each other. Sometimes I gave them too much space. Many times, not enough. Eventually, we found our groove and, while we still have the occasional shove, I now have a whole arsenal of tried-and-true ways to come alongside them and shepherd them through a conflict without taking over, ways that give a bit more guidance than sportscasting when they need it, but still communicate the same degree of trust and respect.
1. “What are we going to do?”
Early last year, I read Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry. I loved just about everything in the book and, in particular, the emphasis placed on empowering siblings to resolve their own conflicts. The book felt so applicable to the relationship of my, then, one year old and two year old that I was surprised how often I had heard it dismissed as a book for parents of older children…probably because parents find it so hard to trust just how capable our children really are. The idea of naming the problem — in the case of my children, usually, “You both want that _____” — and then simply asking, “What are we going to do about it?” was so exciting to me. Could my children do this? I wondered (because I am apparently one of the parents I just called out thirty seconds ago for not trusting their children enough.) Sure enough, they could. Putting the conflict on pause and giving them a problem to solve allowed them both to step back and think more clearly than they ever could while engaged in a tug-o-war over a monster truck.
Toddlers thrive when they are included, when they are allowed to participate in making choices that affect them, when they are treated as capable individuals…and I’ve never met one that didn’t love solving problems! This simple question taps into all of those desires and has been wonderfully effective for us.
At two and three, my children (though more empathetic than their years, I flatter myself to think) are naturally self-centered, so the solutions they present are often just better articulated variants of “Me first,” but that doesn’t mean that, “What if I use the pink spoon now, Babygirl, and you can use it at lunch?” isn’t a deal she’ll take. In fact, I am still laughing about how easily the deadlock about who would use the step stool first to wash their hands was resolved with, “Babygirl, what if I go first and you go NEXT first?”
2. “Do you want to tell her what you’re working on?”
Before she was verbal, Babygirl frequently took toys from her brother because she wanted to be a part of what he was doing but didn’t know how to communicate that. Honestly, even after acquiring plenty of language, toddlers (including mine) fall back on taking an item as an attempt to enter into the play scenario. Now, if you’ve read much of my blog, you know I don’t worry too much about toy taking (it’s developmentally appropriate and usually resolved easily between children), but I have found that the Bug needs a bit more “protection” when he is building something. He is methodical when he works and having his sister come up and grab a block off of his tower because she wants to help can have pretty intense fallout.
(To be clear, by “intense fallout,” I mean hitting.)
When it feels appropriate, I try to preempt those incidents by observing, “You look curious,” to Babygirl and then, to the Bug, “Do you want to tell her about what you’re working on?”
The question acknowledges her interest while gently setting a boundary, and invites them to start a conversation about how to move forward. A bit like asking, “What are we going to do?,” it also tends to slow the action enough to buy the Bug a minute to think about how he might expand his play scenario to include his sister.
3. “Is there a way she can help?”
This is a natural extension of “Do you want to tell her what you’re working on?”, and is a question I often ask when one of the kids is building something and forcefully resisting the other’s participation. Asking if there is a way that his sister can help has been a great way to protect the Bug’s work while still allowing her (usually) to participate. It gives him the ability to include her without the fear that she might “mess up” what he’s working on. It also invites him to think differently about what he is building and look for a way to divide the work.
(As I’m typing this, he literally just sat down next to her while she played and said, “What are you doing? Can I help?”)
4. “Can you tell her your idea?”
When the kids are in conflict about a toy that neither is actively using and they need more help than “What are we going to do?” I often have luck with, “Can you tell her your idea?” Sometimes the deadlock is easily broken when one presents a really fun idea and the other is happy to play along. Sometimes, talking through their ideas helps them come up with a way that the other can help. And sometimes the conversation about their ideas naturally evolves into play without them even realizing it.
5. “Is there something else you think she might like?”
I don’t force sharing, so this has been a really valuable tool for my kids. They know that asking for a turn doesn’t mean the immediate surrender of whatever they are hoping to play with, but they have learned that they can often speed things along with the offer of a trade. They trade toys pretty independently now, but this was a seed I planted (or, perhaps, just watered) fairly often when Babygirl was newly crawling. The Bug went through a pretty intense stage of snatching toys from her as he tried to re-learn their dynamic with his sister, now, following him all over the house and not just rolling around by herself on a blanket. Often, she moved on, unfazed, to the next toy. But, not always. And because of their age and size difference (and, if I’m honest, probably also my own sensitivity to gender norms), I wasn’t comfortable with him taking a toy that she clung tightly to and only relinquished because she was completely outmatched. I felt that it was important that he hear her “no” even if she couldn’t say it. So I began to step in in those situations, gently placing a hand over the toy and saying, “I won’t let you take a toy from her hands when she’s saying, ‘no,'” and often added, “Is there something else you think she might like?”
6. “I hear you. Now can you tell her?”
“MOOOOOOOOOOOM, she’s crowding me!” the Bug will wail to me when Babygirl has him cornered on the couch.
“Are you asking Babygirl to give you some space?” I ask, gently reminding him that he is equally capable of asking her to move.
“Babygirl, I’m feeling crowded. I need some space,” he says. And she scoots over.
Occasionally, one of my kids will run to me with a grievance about the other — “He took it my truck!” “She knocked down my tower!” “He pushed me!” (you get the idea) — looking for an ally. And I want to be that ally, but never in a way that makes them lose sight of the fact that they have each other as allies as well. After acknowledging the feelings I’m seeing (“That really upset you,” “That sounds SO frustrating!”), I try to take myself out of the middle and point them back toward each other — “If you weren’t finished, you can ask for it back,” “Do you think she can help you build a new tower?,” “It’s ok to tell him, ‘Don’t push me again. I don’t like it.'” — nudging them toward reconciliation while reminding them that I trust them to work together to solve the problem.
And sometimes, nothing works…until everything does.
This was certainly the case with a dispute over a toy fire truck that erupted while I worked in the kitchen. I didn’t see what led to the struggle, but saw it, suddenly, on the verge of turning physical, so I stopped what I was doing and sat on the ground with them.
I placed my hand on the toy, saying, “You both really want this fire truck.”
They both wailed.
When none of our usual strategies helped them move toward a solution, I pulled the emergency brake.
“I see how badly you both want this fire truck,” I said. “Sometimes, when you are upset, it can be really hard to make a decision. Babygirl needs a fresh diaper, so this is what we are going to do: I will put this fire truck up on the shelf while I change her diaper. When I am all done, and everyone has had a chance to think about it, we can try again to talk about a plan for the fire truck.”
This is what happened when Babygirl and I walked back into the play area two minutes later:
BUG: “I have an idea! Maybe we can take turns!”
ME: “What do you think about that, Babygirl?”
BUG (before she can answer): “But I want the first turn, ok?”
BABYGIRL: “I want the LAST turn! After you are all done, I would like a turn, ok?”
BUG: “Ok!” (gathering up some cars) “Here you go. You can play with these. They’re kind of fire truck-y.”
(They each played a bit, the Bug with the fire truck and Babygirl with the cars her brother had given her.)
BUG (looking at his fire truck and then back at his sister): “Babygirl, do you want to help me with the hose?”
BABYGIRL: “Sure. Ok!” (runs over to join him)
They’re learning. So am I. Maybe, one day, we’ll all get it.