Toddlers and Younger Siblings: How Could YOU Make Our Baby Happy?

Last time, I answered a different mailbag question about this same topic: babies in a house full of their sibling's toys. That post was about babyproofing (or, more specifically, about NOT babyproofing). Today, I'm going to approach that same topic from a slightly different angle, and discuss how we handle toddlers who would prefer not to share with babies.

The Question:

Hey Kendra,

I have an almost 2.5 year old boy and a 10 month old boy. My question is this: How do I teach the toddler about sharing with his brother? The minute he sees the baby coming his way, he starts screaming and "protecting" HIS toys. Granted, they are toys he has received for his birthday or Christmas, and the baby does invariably destroy whatever the toddler has been building, but is it wrong that I expect him to share those toys? He can play with them by himself during the baby's naps . . . I just don't know what to do. What should I expect of him and what shouldn't I? The concept of sharing with a baby isn't really sharing at all because the baby just takes it and puts it in his mouth and doesn't ever give it back to him . . . Is it fair that I want him to "share" his toys?

Confused mama,

The Answer:


I do think it's fair to require toddlers to share with babies. And I think it's necessary for survival in a family, because two and a half year olds are a lot easier to reason with than ten month olds.

I think there are a few concepts that go into this issue.

1. Who owns what in a family?

Theresa wrote a good post on this:

His. Hers. Yours. Mine. Ours. (How we Handle Communal and Private Property in our Large-ish Family)

In our house, people don't "own" toys. Even if they were a gift. If it lives in the playroom, it's fair game for everyone. There are exceptions for things like craft kits that get used up, or particular individual gifts, or breakable things, but mostly, mostly, mostly, all things belong "to the Tierney family" around here. My kids are expecting that, so there's not too much drama (usually) about anyone playing with anything in particular.

2. What are the responsibilities of being a big brother?

But there is a difference between allowing the baby to play with something of "yours" that you're not currently using, and allowing the baby to take the thing you are currently playing with.

Mostly, I make my kids do both.

We have a set of "family rules." I've never actually written them down, they're just things I say over and over again, and the kids are really familiar with them. Quite a few of my standard sayings have to do with this concept:
  • We don't take things from babies (unless the thing is dangerous or could be destroyed).
  • Babies get what they want.
  • How could you make our baby happy?
  • People are more important than things.

Bigger kids in this house (even if they're only one kid bigger) have more responsibilities. I expect toddlers to share with babies and to learn to develop their empathy skills and to try to help keep babies happy and entertained. Because that's what's best for our family, and it's character-building for the toddler.

3. How to handle it?

So, if the baby is crawling over after something the toddler has, and he starts to balk (and since my current toddler is Frankie, that does happen sometimes), I remind him of the standard rules. He can try to be proactive and distract the baby with something else, "What do you think the baby would want?" But, if what she wants is what he has, I'd remind him, "It looks like Lulu wants to play with that car. You could make our baby happy. I'm sure you can find something else to play with until she gets tired of it." If he throws a fit, I'd say, "If this toy is going to cause unhappiness, I'm going to put it away." And I do. Toys that cause fights, or tears, just Go Away in this house. I'm not going to referee turns. Either they can figure it out for themselves, or I have to get involved. And if I get involved, it goes away. Not for any set amount of time, I'll just put it up on a high shelf, or take it to my closet, and then put it back in the playroom when I think of it.

If he just gets more upset at that point, then he needs to go to his room to compose himself.

Implementing a system like this will take some time (and some time-outs), but in our house, it really does work. My kids have an expectation that they would share their things, and an expectation that they would follow our family rules, and an expectation that they would be able to be disappointed about something without completely losing it.

4. Won't my older kids resent me or their siblings over something like this?

Written out like this, it can sound callous. And perhaps even damaging. But we've been doing this a long time, and it hasn't created any long term resentment or disharmony in our home. Quite the opposite. It has made my kids empathetic, and generous, and detached from possessions. Even at the age of three, Frankie is able to put the needs of his little sister and his family above his desire for a particular toy at a particular moment.

My older kids know that they get more privileges and opportunities than the littler kids, and they understand that the trade off is sometimes having to put the needs of younger siblings above their own.

We're okay with it.

I've got a bunch of posts that deal with getting a handle on toddlers in general. This is a recent one, with links in it to the others:

Mailbag: Please Stop the Screaming!


Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.