Toddler Tug-of-War; Why the toy is only half the battle

Two tiny toddlers make circles around the table, clomping in their oversized heels.  Around and around they go until one’s heel slips off.  The other one curiously leans over and picks it up, clomping on.  Upon noticing the loss of their shoe the other one throws her self on to the floor in tears. Out of curiosity the clomping buddy returns only to inadvertently begin a loud, tear filled shoe tug of war.

What exactly are toddlers looking for in this situation? What do they need from us as caretakers?

Many of us have been in the middle of a toddler tug of war.  More often than not we operate on instinct doing what is ‘right’ in an effort to keep everyone happy.   We often become right fighters, taking toys away or labeling children with abstract words like nice, friendly, mean etc.  Particularly with toddlers these attempts to impose what we see as socially accpetable behavior leave them confused.  The actions we hope will teach them confuse them often leaving them feeling deeply misunderstood.

So what are toddlers looking for from us when they are embroiled in an emotional tug-of-war?   They need us to stay calm first and foremost.  This can be really difficult if you see what seems like an egregious act of toy stealing.  We have to remember that toddlers are always examining the world and with it all manners of cause and effect.  What we see as “mean” or “aggressive” is simply a toddlers expression of their curiosity.  It may also be an outward manifestation of a difficult to manage emotion.  In any case all toddlers involved in the situation deserve to be heard and respected.  Our job isn’t to fix the situation but rather to help both children get back to a state of emotional equilibrium.

In a broader sense we have the responsibility to use these opportunities as teaching moments.  We can do this by talking through what we see.  By avoiding judgements and narrating the scene in front of us.  In the moment it can be hard to let the judgements go especially if one of the children is your own.  Everything inside of you screams “That was so mean! He was playing so nicely with that! How COULD you?!?” But if cooler heads prevail you will be able to give your child, as well as the other child, a better sense of how to properly handle themselves in future situations.

You will find that what toddlers really crave is to be understood.  If you can reflect back what happened to them and how you think they may be feeling this can calm the storm faster than grabbing a toy and handing it back.  When they are on either side of the emotional turmoil what they really want is for you to speak what they are feeling.  Not give them a toy. 


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rysgramma
    Mar 28, 2012 @ 05:38:07

    Well…learning from your teaching (the gentle parenting way) and learning from “old school” (the way I was taught)….I would say, take the object of affection yourself and say “why is this so important?”. Hear what they have to say (I’m sure one, if not both, will claim it will mean the end of their lives if it did not belong to them…that was always Linds’ answer)….then try to explain that it is probably important to both of them. However, in this case ,where it is a shoe that belongs to one, you will have to explain to the other that it simply is not theirs. This could be a good lesson of “what belongs to who”? Because, at the end of the day, no matter what your age, your own possessions are your possessions (it’s the law). 🙂 And although they may not realize what that phrase means, it’s not a bad time to teach it.


    • melissacady
      Apr 03, 2012 @ 03:47:35

      Yes, I do feel that children’s personal items deserve to be protected (and given a safe place to store their special things so they don’t become items of constant conflict). However in the classroom many things are ‘everyones’ and I don’t feel that is the teachers responsibility to keep track of who is holding what, when and who deserves what back. Not only does this put to much power in my hands when it comes to negotiating complex social relationships it also creates a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ child in every instance. I don’t feel that it is ever that black and white. Especially when dealing with toddlers the item itself is hardly as important as them feeling heard, understood and respected as they deal with their struggle.


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