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

by | Jul 9, 2015 | Babies, Mailbag, Parenting With Authority | 17 comments

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.

you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail .
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your question on the blog.



  1. Isabelle

    Filing this preciously away for when numero dos arrives!
    Also, I am happy to report that what I thought was going to be a failure of the baby-proofing the baby method is finally a success! Jude did agree to leave olive oil alone when I said, VICTORY! (He did throw himself on the floor in despair, but left it alone!)

    • Kendra

      I kind of love that moment though. My kids have all done that too. Learning self-mastery is emotionally exhausting. 😉

  2. Anna

    We try to keep all things in common as much as we can too. We've had to work out a few snags, are still working them out, but constantly refereeing who gets what just does not even seem possible to me, I would burn out. We use toy time out a lot, 'if a toy causes you to sin…" and all that.

  3. Morgan Harrigan

    I only have two kids so far, ages 2 and 4 months, so the baby is still too little to want anything. I expect that the toddler will be getting a crash course in sharing soon though. I grew up with enough siblings that I say "our duplos" instead of "your duplos" without even thinking. Subtle, but hopefully getting into his toddler brain a little bit. Thank you for this fantastic blog! Your blog and a few others were absolutely instrumental in my journey to the Church. I was baptised with my children this last Easter.

  4. October Rose

    We mostly do the same thing, except I don't always ask my oldest to give his little brothers what he has if he's invested in playing with it at the moment. Perhaps because our situation is a little different. He was 1.5 when he suddenly found himself with twin brothers. He went from being an only child/grandchild to often not even having a pair of arms to hold him, even though he was still very much a baby himself. I felt he needed "his" things for a time, and his room is still "his" space for now so that he has a place to build etc without brothers destroying his work. Now that the twins are 1.5 years old, he still has a few toys that are "his" and live in his room, but most stuff is in common.

    My perspective with twins is also a little different in that I have two babies … if one wants what the other has, which one gets to be made happy? 😉 One of them in particular has been a "taker" since he was very little, whether from his twin or his older brother. (Although in his defense he also likes giving!) While I do often remove toys if there's fighting, if someone is big enough to be a "taker," I think they're big enough for me to make them give it back, and I do. Big brother still has to help his brothers be happy, but I don't enforce him giving up whatever he has, for the most part.

    • Kendra

      Yes, I'm sure having two babies at once changes everything!

  5. Nanacamille

    Poor Lulu she only had a few days left of being the baby and getting what she wants. She will soon be the big sister and helping to keep the baby happy

  6. Tia

    Wow, this is mostly similar to what we have done! We ask our older one to take turns with the little one, and he can return to the toy when the little one gets bored (usually quickly). I started saying "if you fight over it, I take it away and nobody gets it" because to me that's mimicking a real life consequence — people who fight over things usually do destroy the thing they're fighting over. I also want them to know they're in life together and that competing over things with each other doesn't work really. One question though: does the younger kid always get what he wants? With our 15-month-old, I can really see the wheels turning in his head and know that he is sometimes taking things away or destroying them to be contrary or impish. I do usually err on the side of just making our oldest "take turns" with the younger one, but I wonder when to phase this out and start having a bit more equitable turn-taking?

  7. J & A

    We sort of do the same, but it takes a bit of a twist: if an older kid is invested in a game, they must be sitting somewhere the baby can't get to. I don't like the thought of the baby being a tiny tyrant and demanding things willy-nilly, but we also have the 'rule' that if the younger kid(s) show an interest in what you're playing, you get the opportunity to include them with a toy that's involved in the game, but not being personally used. If more than one person wants the toy, we do self-regulated turns (NOT mom-regulated) which works really, really well for our family.

  8. Amanda

    I usually allow them to keep claim on whatever they're currently playing with, but I like the idea that we're all responsible for a happy baby. My current baby is 20 mo, and she mostly takes their interest for the joy of annoying them, which is a game that requires all to develop self-control 🙂 when do you transition to the little one needing to learn to wait?

    • Kendra

      We have always had a new baby by the time the toddler is one and a half or two, so we start transitioning them out of center-of-the-universe status before the new baby comes. 🙂

    • Amanda

      I have always been in that situation too, and it makes me want to always have a baby. Otherwise, what's going to convince me to put them in a big bed? Potty train? Stop acting like they have no responsibilities??? Lol. I don't know what to do with a 2 year old who's the baby!

  9. Anonymous

    Hi, I enjoyed this read. I had never heard anyone really talk about this before so I was interested in reading your answer. We have 4 children, ages 7, 6, 5 and 3.5. My rule that I made up to stay sane was that the older kids give whatever it is to the younger one that makes the screaming stop… I've told them that it may not be fair, but unless it is something dangerous for the baby/younger (and I've given them examples), they need to just hand it over and I'll sort it out later, after I'm off the phone or done dealing with someone at the door, or talking to a friend, etc. The older children are expected to give to the youngers, and to work it out with their more immediately close in age sibling(s). If the olders don't work it out, I take it away. Like you, for "a time until I think of it later." I've also taught the olders to distract the wanting younger with something else "shiny" … to find them something else they might like just as well as the toy they first wanted. If that doesn't work though, the older is expected to share.

    I have also developed a thought though about the older ones HAVING to share. In certain circumstances, I do not believe everyone HAS to share just because someone else wants it. If there is something equally as good or similar, the person wanting something can just use that. If one child picked a particular toy first or it's a special something to them, and even if a friend wants it, I'm not always inclined to believe the first child should be forced to share. (In these cases, I do step in and find something for the second child that they will like and that will make them happy at the time). I guess I'm working this plan of mine out as we go along… But my purpose is to also instill in our kids, in addition to a giving and sharing mind and heart, that they also don't always get what THEY want either. In society, I feel a lot of children and adults have a sense of entitlement that goes beyond reason or common sense. Just because you think or feel a certain way doesn't make it so, nor does it mean you get what you want, right then, to the detriment of someone else. So I am working that "angle" too, so to speak, and we do it a little bit here at our house with toys or very few particularly special items of endearment to our children.

    With that said, I sure wish for fewer "special" items and that we didn't have so MUCH stuff to monitor… I long for the days of Little House on the Prairie when Laura and Mary just got some corn cob doll and a new Sunday dress at Christmas and were thrilled for the year 🙂 ha …

  10. Dixie

    I don't have all of this worked out yet, but we have developed a rule that if you're playing with something where the baby can get it, you need to be okay with him getting it. Sometimes our 3-year-old doesn't mind if the baby knocks over her duplo towers, and so she'll play duplos on the floor; but if she doesn't want her creations destroyed, she needs to put them up on the table out of his reach. It's worked pretty well so far.

  11. Theresa

    Thanks for the link, Kendra! You know all my best traffic is from you 😉
    I love the idea of asking "how can YOU make our baby happy." It's such a simple way to include even younger kids in taking care of siblings 🙂

  12. Kris

    With 5 kids, we mostly operate this way as well. However, as they get older, I do allow them to have some "special" items that belong to them. I think it works both ways – everyone needs to know that people are more important and that as a family, we share pretty much everything. But I also have some special items that I want to keep separate, so I think older kids should have that privilege also. If there is something special, they may keep it in their room, put away from other people. But they also may not bring it out where it might tempt the toddler or the baby. This does not apply to things like games or general toys. Mostly in reference to a special, loved stuffed animal, a lego set that they have spent hours building (we have a special shelf for display), etc. Games and toys go in the playroom as soon as they are purchased or gifted and are for general use. We did have to make some special rules for Xbox games like "everyone can play your game but they can't use your file", etc.

    • Kendra

      Yes, that's a good point. Our older kids each have a "treasure shelf" that's up high, and I'd love for them each to have a footlocker or drawer of something to keep their own stuff safe, but not tempting.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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