“Toy Jail” emphasizes the mutual benefit of sharing

Melissa’s one tactful mom. I love this solution — teaches skills without finger-pointing.

Our toddlers are 17 months apart and are constantly competing for toys. That’s a nice way of putting it, right? :) I’m not a yeller, and I see that sharing is hard, so if things get heated, the toys go into Toy Jail. "This toy is causing a whole bunch of trouble today. Let’s put it in jail and see if we’ll have a better day with it tomorrow." Some of the hotly contested toys live in toy jail, poor things, but it seems to work about 80% of the time. My four year-old will stop and say, "Here, you take it before it goes into Toy Jail."

Related: ‘Toy library’ promotes cleanup AND creativity


  1. says

    Smart solution! With only one child we only have this problem at play dates, but maybe Toy Jail would help the kiddos understand the need to share a desired toy at their next play date.

    I’ll talk to the other moms about taking this for a test drive.

  2. says

    I’ve heard this solution before, but I’m not sure I understand it. In my house, the sharing issue comes up typically one of two ways, either a younger child basically tries to take the toy (in which case it was clear who had it to begin with so why should the older child lose it?), or else one child has put a toy down and another has come to claim it (where the interpretation of “I was still playing with that” is the trickiest part). I’m not into punishing the child who was otherwise minding her own business, you know? If it’s clear that they both tried to pull the same toy out of the same box at the same time, then sure, you take that one away and say “Find something else”, but in the more frequent case that one child was already playing with it I’m not sure that it’s fair to take it away. Am I wrong?

  3. says

    Duane, it’s more a matter of dealing with the problem-solving failure than the sharing per-se. Often, I have absolutely no idea who had it first, whether one put it down but wasn’t done with it (work cycle incomplete), etc.

    Our focus is that they have to solve the problem with the toy. I don’t care how they solve it as long as they’re both happy. If they cannot solve the problem (with or without assistance/coaching), the toy goes in time out until they can. We also use toy time out for when the toy is being used unsafely (like, for beating the cat or the siblings).

    Granted, at times it is totally obvious what the solution is. The solution is usually ‘RESPECT THE WORK CYCLE’ – that is, if the child had it first, it is theirs until they are done. And no ‘he’s younger, he’s more upset, give it to him so we can have some peace in here’ (which just seems to teach my kids that the younger has to be protected from feeling bad, and it’s so important to prevent any sense of desire, longing, or having-to-wait that it is totally worth disrespecting the elder child). We have work rugs they can roll out and put their toy on so everyone KNOWS it is still ‘in their possession’ until they move it off the rug. That helps a lot with the ‘but I wasn’t DONE!’ issue.

    I’m going to assume that Melissa has many strategies for handling the obvious solutions – ‘he’s not done yet, ask him to tell you when he is, so you know when you can have a turn.’ Or ownership issues – ‘that’s yours, it was a special gift, you have the right to choose to not share it. I’d prefer if you didn’t create an attractive nuisance out of it by playing with it smack under your brother’s nose, because that’s unkind to him when you know you are not willing to share.’

    Etc. Many strategies. Toy timeout and toy jail are useful when there’s no obvious solution, when you don’t know what happened (four kids, and not much hovering over here), and when they are telling conflicting stories about the events (both of which are probably true from their perspective). I end up with ‘okay, we have a problem – I don’t know how it got to this point, but it is here, and we need to solve it’ and if they cannot solve it, toy time out is a possible solution I can offer. Among several, usually. And mostly, toy time out stops happening around 3 years old, because they start recognizing that mommy’s solution and their solution(s) are not the same thing, and they can find their own way through (we also start teaching collaborative problem-solving by the time they’re 18 months old, so they’re well with the program by then). Takes time, and humor (double humor dose usually helps – at least one proposed solution should make them laugh), and calm (we have had to do time outs to calm down enough to discuss the problem, occasionally). But… it’s in there in the tool box regardless. Right next to the expectation that they are required to learn how to navigate conflicts of needs with their siblings, and they’re trusted to be able to learn the process and complete it without my assistance, too.

    Does that help? Just picture it as ONE solution, not the only solution.

  4. pdxmomto2 says

    We have a related rule in our house. Any toy that gets THROWN goes in “time-out” for the day. This has really cut down on me constantly having to say “don’t throw that” which I was getting very tired of saying. Usualy simply throwing a toy doesn’t warrant a child time out around here (unless of course it was at someone on purpose, or out of anger). I simply swoop up the item and put it on top of the piano. I don’t usually have to even say anything.

  5. Karl says

    Our “jail” is the top of the fridge, and is reserved for toys they hit each other with, or fight to get. We also put toys they use to break the rules individually, like carrying an armful of toys unsafely on the stairs, throwing a ball inside, or toys they sneak out of bed to get. We usually don’t say anything, because they know the drill by now, but I like the jail idea.

    We personally leave the toys up there until the kids do something to earn a reward. It’s cheap and it feels like a new toy to them if they haven’t had it in a while. Plus, in the meantime, they play with toys they would otherwise neglect.

    Some toys are up there so often that we’re just going to give them away. I was always skeptical about toys encouraging violence, until one day I looked up on the fridge and noticed it mostly contained the toy knives (from a play kitchen), toy guns (bought by other people), and things like plastic baseball bats.

  6. Melissa says

    Duane – what Hedra said pretty much nailed it. It’s very situational. If the kids hit, it’s 2 days w/out the toy. If it’s a shared toy, and they won’t share, it’s one day usually. If there is a toy that’s uniquely theirs, I ask them to play with it in their room – the other kiddo respects that privacy already.

    There’s been a hobby horse (that they use as a club) in our toy jail for a year. I think it’s time to donate it. :)

  7. says

    I have not an official jail, but essentially the same rule – if you fight over it, it goes away. Also if you throw it and it is not a ball.

    Before playdates, I also allow Pumpkinpie to put away any toys that she will nt be willing to share, and with our second coming soon, I will be putting anything she does not want to share in her room to be played with there. If they come out, they are fair game.

  8. Zed says

    Another idea for a hotly contested toy (and I know I got the idea from Parent Hacks, but I can’t remember exactly where) is to assign different days to different kids.

    We always seem to have one “primo” toy that both oldest kids want — the space cup, the plastic binoculars, the goggles, etc. I never know what makes the “toy of the month” so desirable, but I guess I don’t need to know — it just is. Anyway, odd days are for the daughter and even days are for the son. We don’t do this for every toy, just for the most requested toy(s). It works great and stops most fights. They even ask before they play with The Toy whether or not it’s their day for it.

    Don’t know what I’ll do when kids #3 and #4 are old enough to want a say in the whole mix, because I certainly don’t want something as complex as a chart. Hopefully the age spread will take care of some of that!

    (I should add that we do the same thing for determining whose turn it is to say the prayer at mealtimes, since they both always want to. Odd: girl or mom, Even: boy or dad. We’ll just add the youngest boy and youngest girl to this mix when they get old enough.)

  9. Rachel says

    I understand this jail idea is probably a last resort, but if your son is giving up the toy 80% of the time, all you are doing is teaching your son he doesn’t matter and your youngest s/he only has to fuss to get the prize.

    It sounds like what King Solomon did with the two moms and the baby, only reversed. King S had two women both claiming the baby was hers, so he ordered the baby to be split in half so that each got one half. The woman who was truly the baby’s mother protested and said she would rather the baby live and go with the other woman. K. S. knew by that she was the right woman and gave the baby to her.

    Of course, if you followed that story with toys and your kids, you’d only teach your eldest to fuss, LOL!

    Anyway, I have a 4 yr old, a 2.5 yr old, and a 10 mo old. They often want to play with the same things. I find talking with them (not with the baby, although often about him) usually sorts out the matter and teaches them better than removing the toy.

  10. says

    I started using “Toy Jail” yesterday with my 10 year old. I was frustrated with continually telling him to keep his toys (books, papers, and other non-chewable items) away from his little brother. Harry, the little one, is 7 months old and beginning to get mobile, which means even when you think that toy with choke-able parts is out of reach, it’s really not. So, after my older son left a toy next to the baby and walked away for several minutes, I put the toy in “Toy Jail”.

    I’ve also come up with a way for him to work on being a better person. To get a toy out of jail, he has to come up with something extra nice to do for me, on his own. This wouldn’t work for young kids, but by age 10, this is definitely an option.