Conflict Resolution: “Step Away from the Child!”

I observed some fascinating behavior today at a library story time. Before the story began, the kids were all running around, playing with different toys in what is clearly a wonderful and beloved play room. Since this was at about 11:30 am on a Tuesday, most of these kids were under four years old. And perhaps because many of the parents were strangers to each other, there seemed to be a lot of concern about making sure their children were polite to one another. I try so hard not to judge parents, but this really gets me. Three-year-old children are not quiet, they do not sit still for more than thirty seconds and telling them to “Be a good sharer” doesn’t help them one bit.

Figuring out how to negotiate the use of the pink vacuum cleaner is part of play. It’s how kids learn conflict resolution. When you step in to immediately arrange for nice, neat turns, you take all the critical thinking/problem solving out of the situation. How do I know this? Because as soon as another child tries to take away the toy your kid is using, he looks around for you. That is a learned behavior. Why does he need you to solve this problem? It’s a simple choice: give up the toy or refuse to give up the toy. He knows that. He should be able to make that call on his own. If screaming erupts or violence seems about to break out, by all means, ask the kids what’s going on. But do try to help them resolve their conflicts, rather than swooping in and doing it for them. Does no one notice that swooping in does nothing to decrease the number of conflicts between children? It doesn’t remove conflict. It just makes your child less capable of dealing with it.

I see two valid reasons to interrupt play during an activity like this one. Reason #1: To teach manners. “Your friends can’t hear the story when you play with that loud toy. I need you to either sit and listen to the story or find something quiet to play with until it’s over.” It’s not ok to let your kid play the drums while other kids are trying to listen. And it’s rude to the adult. They will understand that, and it’s important for them to learn when certain activities are and are not appropriate.

Fortunately, I was hanging out with a mom who only interrupted the play to point out that her daughter might miss something. This is Reason #2. Your child might be distracted by something and then disappointed when they find out that they have missed the story they were looking forward to hearing. “The story is starting!” or “Do you want to sing with us?” give a kid the opportunity to make a choice. They love that. They hate missing out. The key to this, by the way, is letting your kid actually make her own choice. If she says “No” and walks away, please do not ask her if she is sure. If she changes her mind, she will let you know. But I don’t know any preschooler or toddler who is unsure. They might change their minds every thirty seconds, but when they want something, they definitely want it. When they don’t, they definitely don’t. “Are you suuuuuure you don’t want to listen to the story?” really means “I want you to sit here and listen to this story.” Even if you think it’s for your kid’s benefit, you are really just being passive aggressive. That’s annoying. And kids don’t understand it.

Please. Unless safety is an issue, step away from the child.


  1. You forgot to mention how perfect my children were in this situation. ;)

    October 4, 2011
    • Anne-Marie said:

      Val’s boys? They were the cutest and the best behaved! Gold stars, all around. :)

      October 4, 2011
  2. Luana said:

    DEBAAAATE! Because I disagree with this.

    I have a different perspective on these group situations you describe. Well, at least on my kid and the kids he plays with, I won’t generalize. This is probably quite different at 3 or 4, but I know that 2 year olds very often have no idea what they want. Even when they do, at 2, it’s helpful to get guidance on what’s actually appropriate to do in certain situations, for their safety AND for their development. Most activities are completely new to them and they have no idea what to expect. Maybe someone is about to sing a song but he doesn’t know that. I will encourage him to pay attention, at least until he understands what’s happening. I often say, “Are you sure?” to my 2 year old and it isn’t passive-aggressive. Sometimes, having another second to think about something can help you consider all your choices without being told what to do. I expect I will be doing this until the day I die, too, because I’m his mom. I’m supposed to be the one who says, “Are you sure about that?”

    The other thing you talk about, asking them to be polite, is a huge pet peeve of mine, but in the opposite way it is for you, I think (I told you we disagree on this! :) Although you did say you agree with it if it’s to teach manners, so maybe we agree after all.) I really dislike it when parents don’t mind their children in public spaces, especially when we are strangers to each other. I disagree that guiding them through negotiations increases the number of conflicts. In my observations, it helps greatly, in 2 ways:

    1. As a parent, I can’t pick a date when I can start modeling for my child how to behave in the world. There’s no age when I should start showing that we don’t take things from other people. Maybe there IS an age when he begins to understand what that really means, but he will mirror my behavior long before that. All I can do is keep showing him what is the appropriate, “nice”, way to play with others and hope that at some point he will catch up. Even if he won’t get it the first year, he will learn that what I expect from him is consistent and predictable.

    Of course, at 2, there will be conflict. But between toddlers, most of the time the solution is that the bigger/older/more aggressive kid “wins”. There’s not a more sophisticated way to work out negotiations. That doesn’t sit well with me, even if my kid was the bigger kid. Once a negotiation between toddlers becomes a conflict, there WILL be hitting or crying or some kind of pain involved. I have yet to see a toddler say, “I guess we will have to agree to disagree, Sir!”

    Taking your example of exchanging toys during play: I will not intervene if both kids seem to be doing okay. I will not intervene if another kid takes a toy from Finn because I know my kid and he’ll be okay. I want him to be able to think “that’s okay” because it will happen again and again in life. But I will definitely intervene if Finn tries to take a toy from someone else’s hand, because I don’t want him to think that’s okay. Instead, I want him to know that he always has other choices, which he may not realize in his live-in-the-moment 2 year old brain. It’s okay to covet a cool toy, but it’s not the only toy that will make you happy. I want him to learn that there are rules in life, even at 2. Following rules and being well-mannered isn’t about not getting to do what you want, but about learning how to play with others.

    2. It’s almost impossible to predict toddlers’ behavior. So, if Finn starts toward another kid and it looks like he’s about to disrupt that child’s play in an unwanted way, I will step right in a redirect Finn. I do this because, while I know my kid, I don’t know the other kid. Maybe she bites. Maybe her parent bites. Maybe she’s very shy. Maybe she has a tummy ache. It is my responsibility to protect my child and the children he’s playing with. It’s not okay to let him get away with things just because he’s bigger or more aggressive and it’s not okay for other parents to let their kids do that either. Even at 2, there is a right way to negotiate new situations.

    October 6, 2011
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I don’t think you are disagreeing with my fundamental principal, here, which is: kids learn through doing, not because you do things for them. I also think that I didn’t get into this age group when thinking about this. But none of the examples you describe involve you doing things for your chid. By the time I was writing the part about directing a kid’s attention to a story she doesn’t want to miss, I was thinking of the preschoolers. The 18-month-old I was with also happens to be the kind of toddler who can wander around the room without a whole lot of supervision and not get into any fights. But he’s got a big brother, so he’s rather advanced at conflict resolution. Most two-year-olds (and I suspect that Val’s little guy will reach this stage when he starts caring more about interacting with other kids–developmentally they’re still in his periphery) don’t have enough language to explain what they want even when they do know. And you’re right. They usually don’t have a clue.
      But when you redirect Finn in that new situation, you are modeling behavior, not just telling him to share. And I you know how much I hate it when a two-year-old is told to “be nice” and “share” something–like that makes any sense to him. You’re showing him that people like to meet you when you’re polite and calm and really don’t want to meet you if you’re aggressive and pushy. You’re teaching him this by being part of his play, something he still wants, even though he goes off to do his little independent thing for a few minutes at a time.
      What I don’t like is when an adult tells a kid not to grab toys after grabbing a toy out of his hands and giving it back to the other child while apologizing to the other parent. The child is not part of that interaction and it is taking place over his head, often literally, so it’s not effective modeling. When you’re teaching Finn to use his words, I’ve seen you get down to his level, hold his hands, try for eye contact. It’s more important to you that he gets the message that whatever happened is not ok. It’s hard for me to imagine that you would ignore that opportunity in favor of interacting with another parent.
      Thanks for this comment, it really is a distinction I wasn’t clear about, even in my thoughts. Does this help clarify?

      October 6, 2011

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