Q. The other day as I was dropping off my 2-1/2-year-old at preschool, I saw another child take the toy he was playing with. My son didn't protest at all. He simply picked up another toy. What can I do to help him be more assertive?
A. It sounds like your son may be a quiet, introverted child who shies away from conflict, or he could just be a mellow, easygoing kid. You don't want to make too many assumptions about his reaction. It is important to figure out, as best as you can, what the incident meant to him. Was he bothered by it? Was he angry or hurt that the toy was taken or did he really not care? Did he feel like protesting but didn't know how to -- or wasn't confident enough?
It's also important to make sure you're not confusing your own feelings with his. Think about why this incident bothered you, because one might also see your son's response -- turning his attention to another toy -- as a healthy choice that worked just fine for him in this instance.
If you decide you want to intervene next time he's in a similar situation, you can talk with him about what happened: "Sometimes when another child takes our toy, we don't mind. But sometimes we don't like it and feel angry. How did you feel when Justin took your toy?"
Offer suggestions for what he can do, such as asking the child to give the toy back or turning to the teacher or a parent for help. Role-play with him. Let him play the part of the victim and the aggressor.
It will also be helpful to talk to your son's teachers. Children like yours who tend to be easy and undemanding sometimes go unnoticed. Discussing your concerns will heighten the teachers' awareness that your son has needs too. Then you can develop a plan together.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2004.