|Young children invariably go through periods when it seems that their purpose in
life is to take anything that another child within their view is playing with. Witnessing delightful,
cooperative, or parallel play turn into a tug-of-war, with both children likely to end up in tears, often
reduces the adults to a bundle of nerves right along with the children. Telling me about this type of
situation with her four-year-old daughter, a parent recently asked me how an adult might step in and
intervene, and how we can make our kids less "grabby."
|Before we make sense of how to intervene, let's try to understand our own intense reactions
to these situations. Whether our child is grabbing or losing the toy, many of us are familiar with the
immediate, visceral reaction of anger, of wanting to "right" the "wrong" we just
witnessed. The anger we feel is understandable. We want to protect our children from emotional and physical
pain. We worry that if our children cannot manage themselves in ways that are socially acceptable, they will
suffer. We have strong values about kindness, sharing, cooperation, and justice, and we want to teach those to
our children. We long to contribute to our children's ability to live with others in peace.
When a "grabbing incident" takes place, however, we don't usually stop to think about our values
and wishes for our children. While some of us let the children work things out for themselves, most of us
intervene - to determine who had the object first and to make sure it is returned to that child; to remind or
enforce a general rule about sharing or taking turns; or to administer a consequence such as a "time
out." Yet while these interventions may provide momentary relief, I believe they undermine our ability to
meet our own and our children's deeper needs.
What can we do if we want to use grabbing as an opportunity for all of us to learn to live in peace, to
meet all our needs, and to internalize kindness, cooperation, and compassion? Nonviolent communication (NVC)
offers a way to do that. I'd like to illustrate with an experience I recently had.
Eighteen-month old Jacob (a pseudonym) and his dad were visiting three-year-old Ray and his mom. When it
came time to leave, Jacob clearly had every intention of leaving with Ray's little car.
Ray is sometimes agreeable to other children borrowing his things, but this happened to be his only little
car. When I checked with him if he was willing for Jacob to borrow it, his whole body went into "grabbing
mode": his muscles tensed, his eyes focused on Jacob's hand, and he seemed ready to jump on Jacob to
repossess the car. Noticing the imminent grab, I asked Ray to hold on so we could try to talk with Jacob about
it, and since he is used to resolving conflicts with NVC, he relaxed. If he had not relaxed, I would have
begun the dialogue with my attention on him.
I tried to reflect to Jacob my guess about his feelings and needs: "You like this car? You want to be
able to keep playing with it?" Jacob looked at me intently and held on tight to the car. I told him:
"You know, this is Ray's only little car, and he wants to have it in the house. Would you be willing to
give it back to him?" Jacob's body language indicated a clear no.
Ray tensed once again, and Jacob's dad said to me: "It's OK, we'll just take it out of his hand."
I asked them both to wait and give our conversation a chance. I stayed focused on Jacob: "You really like
things with wheels? You want something with wheels?" I looked around for a strategy that would meet
Jacob's need for choice of the kind of toy he plays with, and found one, so I asked: "Would you like this
Lego train with wheels?" Jacob happily took the Lego with wheels while continuing to hold on to the
little car. Now he had two of Ray's toys!
||At that moment, I did not have any evidence that what I was doing was "working." So
why would I keep going? Because I believe deeply that all people have an innate desire to contribute to
others' well being. Even when children are very young and absorbed in meeting their own needs, one of their
needs is to contribute to others. I believe we can tap their generosity by exhibiting trust in their need to
contribute, by articulating it and inviting them to act on it without any coercion. The lack of coercion is
crucial because generosity does not arise when we are forced into it.
Equally important to me is modeling for children that all people's needs matter and can be met. Using NVC,
I do this by actively showing that their needs matter to me. The key here is modeling for children the
behavior we want to teach them. If we don't want them to grab, we don't grab. Almost every time I am around a
group of children, I see an adult say "No grabbing" while taking a toy from the hands of a resisting
child and giving it to another. This action may seem logical in our adult eyes because we are acting to meet
our needs for justice, consideration, and supporting our children. However, it is not inherently different
from the action of a child who grabs a toy because she wants to meet her needs for play, autonomy, and
When Jacob still did not give the car back after I gave him the train, Jacob's dad and Ray tensed once
again, though Jacob seemed quite absorbed in our conversation. Dad repeated his suggestion of taking the car
back. I spoke to them while keeping eye contact with Jacob: "I don't want to force Jacob to give back the
car. I want him to have choice, so I'd like to see if we can work this out with words." Ray then moved
toward Jacob, while Jacob's dad and I watched, and spoke to him directly: "Jacob," he said,
"why don't you take the Lego train? You can take it home, and give me back the car." When Jacob did
not immediately give back the car, Ray reached his hand to take it from him once again, but I moved closer and
expressed again, to both of them, how much I wanted to talk until we figured this out. At that moment, Jacob
turned to Ray, fully relaxed, and handed him the little car. It seemed to me that Jacob needed to trust that
he was not going to be physically forced to do something he did not want to do in order for him to act on his
own will to consider other's wishes. His dad seemed awe-struck by his behavior.
But I was not surprised. An inner shift almost always happens for at least one of the people involved in a
conflict when NVC is used, and often for both. When we trust that our own needs really matter to others, we
can often relax about the particular strategies we are choosing at that moment. If Jacob had not shifted, I
would have turned to Ray to see if he would shift. Sometimes, just the act of checking in with both children
meets their need for trust that my request is not a demand, and that both their needs matter. This contributes
to their willingness to consider the other.
Focusing on Needs
The difference between needs and strategies is crucial in using NVC. When I talk about needs, I am
referring to the broadest set of human aspirations, needs, and values, things like physical safety, food, and
shelter, but also understanding, support, community, autonomy, honesty, play, peace, and meaning. These needs
are universal. We fight, punish, or go to war when our strategies for meeting our needs conflict, and we are
unable to connect with the human being on the other side of the argument.
|If I want to use NVC, then I turn my attention to identifying and acknowledging everyone's
needs. Both children who wanted the car had a need for autonomy, to choose what to do and when. We all have
that need, and it comes up most fiercely when we are told that we "have to" do something. Hearing
that the car might be taken from him, Jacob held on to it ever more tightly. To meet his need for autonomy, he
had to find a way to experience his choice in giving back the car. Ray, on the other hand, also needed choice
about what happens with his things. It would be hard for him to agree to have other children play with his
toys as easily as he usually does if he thought that meant he would lose choice about which house those toys
ended up in.
|I want to nurture in children both autonomy and consideration. If I grab the car from Jacob,
I send him and Ray a message about the power of using force, even while I tell them both not to use force. So
I hold myself back and take a leap of faith: that we can work this out without force, that at least one child
will act out of consideration of the other, and that in this process we will have acted not only to resolve
this one conflict peacefully, but also to nurture in both children trust in the possibility of care,
understanding, and peace. Herein lies my greatest hope for all children, and for human beings: that we may
nurture in ourselves and in our children faith in the possibility of peace and the capacities to make peace
happen. We can do this by intervening in ways that model what we want them to learn.