Q&A: playgroup etiquette

Emmie writes:

"I have 11 month old twin boys. I've heard that twins are often a bit undersocialized when they're young because it's easier to just stay home rather than doing the things singletons do with their parents, like go to the grocery store or to playdates. In an effort to combat this tendency, I've joined a couple of playgroups.

This is all well and good, but I've noticed a bit of, umm, tension, around how the kids interact. Mine are the smallest in both groups and aren't particularly aggressive at this point, but they're also pretty used to having another kid in their space. The other moms in my groups get very worried any time kids really get near each other, pull on each other's toys, etc. If anything, my kids are freaked out by the cries of "genntle!, gennnntle!", "SHARE, baby!", and so on. We're talking 10-24 month-olds here.

Am I wrong to not want to intervene (and scold) quite that much? And why are we apologizing to each other for our kids' perfectly normal behaviour? I brought a friend my mom's age along once, and she was really shocked to see this. I do intervene if someone seems to be upset or is going to get hurt, but only by doing the "distract and engage" thing, in a calm manner, and not also apologizing to the other kid's mom. I do realize that the other extreme is sometimes an issue too, but am I wrong to just want to relax a little? When did a bunch of babies crawling around on the floor under heavy supervision become so stressful?"

Oh, for Pete's sake. It's not just you.

Older babies and toddlers are supposed to crawl all over each other, drool and teeth on each other, and grab toys away from each other. It's how they operate, and it's developmentally appropriate. Any parent who seriously thinks a kid around the age of 1 can share is deluding herself, or trying to gain approval from the other parents by cracking down on "bad behavior." Yes, you can condition kids not to touch other kids' toys by negative reinforcement (yelling, scaring them, hitting them, etc.) but it's more like training a dog than teaching a child anything.

What's more, young toddlers don't connect having a toy taken away with the fact that another kid took it. A 3-year-old will get upset because a friend snatched her toy ("Sebastian took my dumptruck!"). But a 14-month-old doesn't get hurt feelings that someone else took his toy--he's just upset that the toy is gone suddenly. And most of the time if another toy pops up immediately, it's fine. That's why redirection and distraction work so well as tools for adults dealing with toddlers. So it's kind of silly to be reprimanding a toddler for taking someone else's toy on the grounds that it hurts someone else's feelings, since the kid doesn't even have his own feelings hurt by getting a toy snatched.

A parent of young toddlers really just needs 1)to be on guard to make sure that no one is getting really walloped, and 2) to have a handful of toys so that when one gets taken away another one can appear and make everything fine.

IME, the window when kids can start to connect that they're not supposed to grab or hit, etc, is around 16-18 months. And then with 2-year-olds you can really start working on stopping the biting and hitting and screeching. But that's a different post entirely.

I think what it really gets down to is that you're hanging out with the wrong groups of moms. It sounds like they're trying to be Perfect Mothers who have Perfect Children who never do anything wrong (or age-appropriate). Playgroup should be about kids playing with each other (even swarming all over each other like puppies) and parents bitching to each other and supporting each other and making each other laugh. Kind of like the internet, only with goldfish crackers and wine. So I vote you find some better parent friends.

There have to be some other parents in your area who are going to have more realistic expectations of normal older baby/toddler behavior. I'd take a look at the groups you're in first to see if there are other parents there who seem not to be as uptight about things. If so, invite them over for a playdate with just your two guys and see how it goes. Eventually you should be able to put together a group of 3-5 families with your same ideas about letting kids be at their appropriate developmental stages, and playgroup will end up being more fun for all of you.