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Toddling Through the Silicon Valley

By Cheryl Bac

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About this blog: I'm a wife, stay-at-home mom, home cook, marathon runner, and PhD. I recently moved to the Silicon Valley after completing my PhD in Social Psychology and becoming a mother one month apart. Before that, I ran seven marathons incl...  (More)

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Sometimes "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Cut It

Uploaded: Aug 16, 2014
In the summer many attractions are quite crowded. Older and younger kids are mingling. And adults are catching up with friends while "keeping an eye" on the kids. With so many people, it's no surprise that children sometimes get intentionally bumped, pushed, and shoved.

When a toddler acts out, it's not uncommon for the tot's parent to first check and make sure that the other child is ok, remove his/her little one from the situation, and talk to him/her about what happened, what the consequences are and what a better choice would have been.

When an older child hurts a toddler, however, the discipline is not always as clear cut. Sometimes the older child's caregiver doesn't see the incident, sometimes the older child complains about the punishment being unfair, or the toddler becomes exceptionally frightened and has a difficult time recovering. Big kids are just that...BIG!

Many parents force their child to apologize. It is a kind gesture and I'm sure their intentions are good, but the older child's apology it is not always appreciated by a hurt toddler. Why would he want to interact with a child who hurt him? Why should he wait while the older child protests and tries to wiggle his way out of an apology? And, no, most likely he doesn't want to be close enough to the older child to receive a hug or a pat on the back.

A hurt toddler probably wants the big kid to play somewhere else so he can continue to play and not worry about being hurt again. Surprisingly, I don't see this outcome happen often. Most of the time, the older child might whine, apologize quickly, and then immediately return to rough playing right next to the hurt/frightened/upset toddler.

How do you handle these negative interactions between toddlers and older kids? Do you force your child to apologize to younger children? If so, how do you ensure a successful interaction?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Mother of 4, a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Aug 16, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Good topic and a hard one to deal with, particularly when you are the parent of the older kid.

If I spot one of my kids accidentally doing something that may upset a toddler (not necessarily something that hurts them) I make sure they apologize and say it was an accident. It may not solve the problem as far as the toddler is concerned, but the toddler is only half of the scenario. As a parent of the older child, I must make my child aware of what happened so that it can be prevented from being repeated.

If something was a little more deliberate, then that must also be dealt with but obviously from a different perspective.

However, it sometimes works both ways. I have seen toddlers allowed to wander into an area where older kids are playing and it would be better for the toddler to find a safer place to play. Sometimes I have asked a toddler's parent to move the toddler to say the other side of a playground where there is nobody, rather than to interfere with older kids who had established a more rough type of play.

As an example, at Mitchell Park there is a climbing web which I think is only suitable for children over a certain height. On a couple of occasions when my kids and their bigger friends are happily playing, a mother and toddler come along and the mother stands at the bottom allowing her little child to cautiously climb. My big kids then have to stop their fun and allow for the little kid to nervously do its thing. My kids end up having their fun stopped and usually run off to find something else to do. The little kid then realizes that the climb is too scary and runs off too. I once discussed this with a toddler mom who saw nothing wrong and said that it was the responsibility of the big kids to get out of the way of the little kids. I told her that I hoped she felt the same way when her toddler became one of the big kids, because my big kids deserve to have some fun at their level of enjoyment.

My point is, it is right and proper for older kids to remember how to behave around little kids, but sometimes they need their own space too. When they have it, it is also right and proper for little kids to be told that they should play somewhere safer.

Our playgrounds here sometimes have suggested age limits and sometimes they don't. The suggested ages are there for a reason and should be followed. It would be wonderful if all playgrounds had an area for little kids and an area with more challenging equipment designed for older kids where the little kids should be prevented from playing. Our elementary schools do this with kinder playgrounds separate from the general play areas. I wish our local parks did it too.

It is often harder to get the older kids to play outside due to all sorts of indoor attractions, but when they do get outside, it is nice if they can be allowed to play like big kids.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Mother of 4 - Thanks for offering the older child perspective. Yes, these negative interactions seem to be less frequent when the toddlers and older children are in separate areas, like Rinconada Park. Even kids who are only 4, 5, or 6 years old, seem to be drawn to the bigger kid playground rather than the one designed for 2-5 year olds.

It's more difficult at places where the areas are not separate (Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, Johnson Park, La Petite Playhouse, etc). But I assume this setup helps parents who are supervising children of various ages.

Personally, I've been very impressed by the behavior of most kids we've interacted with who are 6+ years old. We recently went to PAJMZ and an older girl handed my son a tennis ball when she noticed that he had a hard time finding one. And at La Petite Playhouse, the 6+ year olds have been especially cautious when my son is climbing up to the big blue slide.

We've found it more challenging when the older kids are just a little older than toddler age because they are drawn to the same toys (sand toys, trucks, train tables, etc) and may not understand that, although the toddler is not a baby, he is also not a 4 year old.

I agree, it's tough for everyone when toddlers wander over to age-inappropriate areas. Older kids need outdoor spaces to rough play. And toddlers want to try new skills and mimic the older kids. When the toddler and big kid areas are not clearly separated, like at Seale Park, it can be a challenge to keep a toddler off of the big kid play structures. During the school year, it's easy to check out these parks when the older kids are in school or participating in sports. During the summer months, that's not an option.

Posted by Wdy, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Aug 17, 2014 at 3:36 am

My kids have been on both sides of this scenario hundreds of times, and yes, I do ask the offending child to apologize and then give some space to the other. You will encounter minor challenges like this in thousands of public settings over the next decade and I think the most appropriate skills to teach toddlers and olders alike is empathy and kindness. "How would you feel if xxx"

Adults have lost this skill and it makes for a sad world, especially online and with strangers.

parents get non-stop advice and criticism from all sides. It's hard not to. If we can teach our children to empathize, they will be less bothered by the rough housing or future versions of infractions, and more kind to others of all ages. I know empathy doesn't develop naturally til later ages, but it can be encouraged.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Wdy - Thank you for sharing your experiences with kids of different ages. Empathy and kindness are definitely very important skills for everyone to learn.

When parents force their children to apologize, however, I don't think they are teaching empathy. Most of the time these apologies aren't sincere. And, if no other consequences are given, there is little reason for the child not to just repeat the behavior over and over again. When a toddler is clearly upset or scared, parents could teach empathy and kindness by explaining why the toddler is upset and why the tot does not want the older child to approach him. They could also model a sincere apology and check that the little one is ok. Afterward, the parent can show empathy and kindness to their own child by listening to them about why they chose to act out and hurt/upset a younger child (did he want a toy that the toddler was playing with? Was the toddler in his way and wouldn't move?).

At the park, I think kids can learn a lot about kindness and empathy when they see that another kid is upset or hurt (but they didn't cause the child to be upset or harmed). Parents can explain that the child is upset because he fell down or because he doesn't want to leave the park (and how their child has experienced similar feelings).

Yes, children do learn a lot about empathy and kindness in their interactions with other children. But, I also think they probably learn even more when the adults in their lives show them empathy and kindness day in and day out.

Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 21, 2014 at 5:10 am

I want to share some experience I had.

I lived in Newport Beach/Newport coast area up on the hill - a very nice area.

One summer, I invited my sisters' family (my niece Shilpa - a dentist, her husband a doctor, and their daughter Aria a four year old.) There is a great public park next door and a neighborhood shopping center.

We agreed to walk in the middle of a summer afternoon in 2011; we go to the park; a great park setting and not many people around on a weekday around 3pm - warm day in August.

My niece's daughter Aria was happy, playing around,and another family with a girl start playing together.

About 15 minutes later, the other girl scratches Aria and she has a bleeding and scratch on her face about 1.5 inches long.

We separate them; move on to the shopping center and Aria's parents treat her with medicine.

Long story short; some children are aggressive. They need to be controlled.
Parents need to watch out for their children.

This goes on all the way to high school. You heard about 'bullying'.

This is my first hand experience having raised a 34 and a 32 year old daughters.

Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Aug 21, 2014 at 5:17 am

One additional comment.

From my experience; apology or I am 'sorry' does not mean any thing to the impacted/affected.

I am not sure how the ~4 year old need to be treated when Aria was scratched.

This aggressive behavior; is some thing the parents need to take care of privately.

SO, 'I am sorry' does not cut it some times; more action required when dealing with children.


Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Sea-Seelam Reddy- Thank you for sharing your experiences. I'm so sorry to hear about Aria's negative park outing. It is very tough to witness the aggressive behavior that happens between children. As you mention, it is amazing how quickly children (even close friends) can switch from laughter to tears.

It seems like a lot of parents want their kids to figure out how to handle these social situations on their own, become more independent, etc. Yet, as you talk about, some children just aren't ready for that freedom - they need a caregiver to intervene and help them learn (especially when aggression or bullying is involved). I'm sure finding the right balance between protection, intervention, and independence is a challenge for all parents regardless of their children's ages.

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