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I currently attend quite a few different playgroups throughout the week with my one year old little boy (he is at the crawling, not quite talking stage). And I recently experienced the awkward situation where another person's little boy (approx. 2 years old) took the toy that my child was playing with and ran off with it.

At the time I took a back seat and didn't say anything, just letting the parent of the child deal with it. However, I don't feel that her half-hearted scolding really solved the problem as, though my son got the toy back, it repeatedly happened and eventually the parent just let him get on with it.

I'm not really sure what I should have done in this situation, and was worried about ruffling other parent's feathers. At the time, I just let it go and distracted my child with another toy that he was fairly happy to play with. However, I couldn't help but feel that in doing so and keeping fairly quiet myself throughout the whole affair, I'm somehow teaching him that it's wrong to stand up for himself.

So, any advice on dealing with similar situations would be much welcome, thanks!

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This situation is going to recur for years. Develop a long-term strategy for dealing with it based on what is best for your son, not necessarily what is fair. At this age, he's not going to learn any significant lesson from any behavior you choose as long as it's not frightening to him.

There are plenty of reasons to stop someone from snatching a toy: value (don't bring to the park any object you can't stand to lose), germs, your son's distress, your discomfort, what example snatching sets for your child's future behavior, and more. So it's good to look at the big picture.

Do you want him to learn that sharing is good? (Granted he wasn't given a choice here, but it is a kind of sharing.) If your son doesn't cry, you can praise him for good sharing while giving him a replacement. When the other child has had it long enough, just calmly retrieve it. No biggie. It's not your job to train someone else's kid.

Do you want to teach him right from wrong? Tell him calmly, that wasn't right, was it? He should have said please first and waited, and replace the toy. Retrieve it at your convenience.

If you want to teach him feeling words (how to identify his emotions and develop strategies for dealing with them) ask your son did that make you sad? Will another toy make you happy, or do you need that toy? Or Would you like me to go get it or can he play with it for a few minutes? (Choices are always nice.) If the boy cries, say that made him sad. Maybe his mommy should buy him one. Do you want to let him play with yours for a few minutes? If you do, we can play with (substitution).

Etc.

It's a while off before he'll actually learn anything from all this, but those times will come. Whatever your choice (and it's perfectly ok to calmly repossess your son's toy at any 'little thief's' age and let his mommy make a life lesson out of it), make sure it reflects what you want for your son, not the gut reaction you feel when a strange kid snatches your son's toy from him. Your son doesn't feel that yet.

Probably the single most important thing is that you anticipate these events and remain calm and assured in your response.

  • You're much more peaceful about this one than I have ever been. I don't steal and I don't let people steal from me (or family). Isn't always pretty. – Sylas Seabrook Nov 5 '14 at 3:24
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    @JeremyMiller - well, it's easier to be calm when the thief is under seven. :-) – anongoodnurse Nov 5 '14 at 5:21
  • Allowing a child to snatch a toy from you is not exactly sharing. – Dave Clarke Nov 5 '14 at 14:19
  • @DaveClarke - I agree completely. But the good that can come of this situation - identifying and learning to manage the emotions associated with the act - will be of benefit when other 'stealing' occurs: put-downs (someone 'stealing' some of your self-esteem), interruptions (someone stealing attention from you), siblings borrowing things without permission, someone stealing your parking space, someone cutting in front of you in traffic (stealing/invasion of personal space), etc. – anongoodnurse Nov 5 '14 at 18:54
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The other parent seems to have taken a cue from you.* You didn't say anything and let the her deal with it, which sends the message that it doesn't bother you on behalf of your son. And when that happens repeatedly, the simpler path for her to take was just let her child have the toy -- that way, it doesn't get stolen anymore and she doesn't have to discipline anymore, problem solved. :P

* I don't mean that this is your fault, nor do I think her eventual response was appropriate for either your child (who repeatedly lost the toy) or hers (who learned it's OK to steal if nobody fights back, and that his mom will eventually just ignore bad behavior). I wouldn't have done the same if I were in her position, unless the other parent explicitly stated "oh, your boy can have the toy" — and even then I'd attempt to seek some sharing arrangement where the kids play together.

Intervening in somebody else's parenting is often interpreted as stepping in to discipline, but can also take a positive aspect: thanking the toddler for returning the toy ("Thank you, Child is glad to have that back! I'm sure he'll let you play with it soon"), and a brief thanks to the mother ("I appreciate you helping out in that situation"). If this is her first child, she's still learning about this whole parenting thing, too. Getting positive reinforcement from other parents is a nice thing, and it can proactively send a message about what boundaries you're establishing for your own children. Playgroups can be about parental bonding just as much as giving small children a chance to play together.

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I firmly believe that when a parent brings their child to a shared play area or play group, then they confer to the rest of the attending guardians the right to interact with that child. (I also believe that each attending guardian has a shared responsibility to ensure the safety of the children and the surrounding property.)

In this case, if another child is just taking toys from your child, I believe it is within your rights to address the other child. I would calmly retrieve the toy, and say something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, my son was playing with that, so I need to take it back. But, if you ask him to share I'm sure he'll let you play with it." I usually make it a little more personal by adding my son's name. If I don't know the child I'd ask for theirs, too.

Obviously, with your son only being a year old, he may not get what's going on anyway, and the other child is really just asking you for permission (which is fine). The older child, however, does understand. You're teaching him, at the very least, that your child isn't easy pickings, and at best you're reinforcing his parent's lessons about sharing.

I don't think it's necessary to have to go directly to the parent of the other child, unless they are doing something that's actually harmful to your child and they need to be physically removed. If the other adult happens to be uncomfortable with you speaking directly to their child, but you were being courteous, respectful, and calm, then the fault is with the other adult. If they don't want to be around other adults who take the supervision of other children seriously, then they're free to not attend the communal activities.

In my personal experience (I have a 20 month old), this technique works for both myself and my wife. Our apartment complex has a shared playground, and one or both of us are often out there supervising. Some of the other younger children don't have very good sharing skills, so we often have to address them and ask for toys back.

However, are general preparation for this activities follows this plan:

  1. Bring toys with the intent of sharing some of them.
  2. If another child would like to play with a toy our son is actively using, we ask our son if he wants to play with another toy instead.
  3. If we want to encourage sharing and playing together, we'll get down with our son and invite the other child to play with us (and offer that child one of the free toys).
  4. If we don't want to lose track of all of our toys, we will tell the other children that they can play with them but they have to stay in [this] area.
  5. I do not allow any children to take our toys onto playground equipment, and will take/ask for them back if they do. (There's too much liability.)
  6. If our son is adamant about not sharing a particular toy at that moment, we usually try to capture his attention with a different activity or different toy. This is fairly easy at his age, and prevents focusing on the negative behavior.
  7. Sometimes we just have to say, "No." But usually, it's more like "I'm sorry, he just started/is really interested in playing with that. When he's done, he'd be happy to share."

When our son gets older, I know we'll have to resort to other techniques. That's an answer for another question, anyway.

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One of the most important concerns for a young child is to not have the things they are using taken away from them. Allowing another kid to take your child's toy is not sending the message you need to share it sends the message you cannot be confident that I will protect your right to keep using the toy.

You need to take the toy back from the other child and say little Suzy hasn't finished playing with it yet. Then with both of the children you can say, Suzy, when you are finished with the toy, will you give it to Johnny? Suzy should agree to this. Then you enforce this by protecting Suzy's right to play.

You can inform the other parents of your view, namely, that you don't think that other kids should take the toys your kid is playing with until your kid is finished.

This is the approach recommended in the book It's OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids by Heather Shumaker. This book is full of very useful ideas.

  • While I agree with much of what you say, when a parent is present to help the child identify and deal with the situation appropriately, there is less threat to the child (note I advocate retrieving the toy in every situation, and am considering the overall effect on the child - if he cries, either retrieve the toy, or talk about the feelings in a controlled manner). Life will be unfair to you in myriad and unforseeable ways, from such small things as someone stealing your parking spot to someone stealing your identity or worse. I see these early, safe episodes as an opportunity to teach. – anongoodnurse Nov 5 '14 at 19:04
  • I also agree that trust is critical in the parent-child relationship. But trust is built up in a thousand different ways unrelated to toys: responding when they are hungry, hurt, lonely, frightened, happy, consistent discipline, not yelling or striking, etc., etc. I see only a little difference between having a toy taken away and forcing a child to share against her will: what do you do if Suzy never wants to share her toy? Are you, the trusted parent, telling her that it's not ok for Johnny to force a situation onto her, but it's ok for her parent to do so? Just thinking out loud. – anongoodnurse Nov 5 '14 at 19:18
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    @anongoodnurse: The reasoning in the book I mention in my post is that if you build up the trust in the "It's okay not to share" situation, the child will become better at sharing because they will learn to understand that sharing does not have negative consequences – remember that the child cares only about being safe, including not having its toys taken away. Teaching the child that the world is full of jerks does not enhance this feeling of safety. That can wait, methinks. – Dave Clarke Nov 5 '14 at 20:36
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    I think I follow you, and it certainly sounds good, but I don't see an answer to the question "what do you do if Suzy never wants to share her toy? Are you, the trusted parent, telling her that it's not ok for Johnny to force a situation onto her, but it's ok for her parent to do so?" here. If you like, we can move this to chat. When to let a child discover that the world is full of jerks sounds like a good Parenting post! :-) – anongoodnurse Nov 5 '14 at 20:50
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    The book says that when Suzy is finished with the toy, then she should share it, but not until that point. Let her keep the toy for hours on end. Johnny can find another toy. Also, it is not okay for either Johnny or his parents to force the situation on Suzy. (Too late to chat.) – Dave Clarke Nov 5 '14 at 20:54

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