Don’t Snatch

Written by Juliet Kemp on December 9th, 2013

Gentle Discipline, Responding With Sensitivity

When your toddler has something they shouldn’t have, how do you handle it? Prise it forcibly out of their fingers? But then — shouldn’t “don’t snatch” apply to adults, too?

A little while ago, I found myself forcibly (and with some frustration) taking a remote control out of Leon’s hand. He wailed in distress, and I was hit with one of those sudden, unpleasant moments of realisation. Sure, the remote control wasn’t ours (we were away from home) and I was worried that it would get lost. But if I pull something out of his hand, where does that leave me when I talk to him about “snatching”?

So I took a deep breath, and I handed it back to him.

“I’m sorry, Leon,” I said. “I shouldn’t have snatched it away from you like that.”

Instead, I spent a while, then and in the weeks afterwards, thinking about alternative ways of dealing with this situation. (A note: I’m just thinking here about situations where a toddler has hold of something you don’t want them to have, not about situations where there’s another child in the mix and they’re arguing over a toy. A post for another time, perhaps!) Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Natural Parents Network: Don't Snatch

Happily this plastic glass was empty of wine, because he really wasn’t about to let go of it.

1. Avoid the problem altogether: better baby proofing.

No question, this is the best bet. Keep things that you can’t let them have out of reach, and ideally out of sight. Have the “in bounds” kitchen cupboard (unlocked, with unbreakable things in) and the “out of bounds” kitchen cupboard (locked, with the breakables and sharps). That baby den you never wanted to use? Put it around the expensive stereo. (And the rubbish bin! Bonus points when you realise this means the dog can’t get at it either.) But unless you’re a lot better at this than me, sooner or later your toddler will get hold of something you didn’t think they could reach, or that someone carelessly left around.

2. Wait it out.

Is it breakable? Can you just wait until they lose interest? With the remote control, what I really needed to do was to make sure that I didn’t lose track of it. As long as I snaffled it up as soon as Leon put it down in favour of something else, there wasn’t actually any other risk. Patience alone would do the trick. Not always in extensive supply with a toddler, but that’s my problem (and one I can work on).

3. Offer a swap.

Can you find something else more interesting to swap in with the verboten object? Warning: Unless desperate, do not offer something that you will then want to retrieve from them…

4. Ask.

I’ve found that this works more often than I would have expected.

“Can I have that, please, sweetie?”

You might need to ask a couple of times, or wait (patience…) a little while for them to process the thought. Be sure to thank them effusively and with a big smile if it works. A variation, if there’s another adult around, is to ask the child to give the object to the other adult. I have best luck with this when it’s linked to something else fun. If Leon is asking for milk but has something else with him that I don’t want to be poked in the breast with (usually someone’s toothbrush), saying “Can you give that to Daddy before we have milk?” works like a charm.

5. Tell and remove.

This is really only one step removed from snatching, but sometimes (especially with objects that he is consistently not allowed) I find that saying, “No, that’s not OK, that’s mine / I can’t let you have that,” then firmly and gently taking the object from him, works. The “gentle” part is important. If he doesn’t get upset, and doesn’t try to hold onto it, I’ve decided that I’m OK with that level of physical force. But personally, I only want to do this for “definitely not” objects — like my glasses and my knitting (for slightly different reasons in both cases!).

6. Hold still.

Is it breakable or dangerous? Is it important? None of the other options have worked, and your toddler is clinging desperately to whatever they have? My current last-ditch resort is to take a deep breath, remain calm — very important — and put my hand over Leon’s. I say something short but firm, like, “I can’t let you have that. Please give it back.” And hold his hand still until he lets go of it. If he protests, I acknowledge the distress, and gently repeat myself. When he does eventually let go, I put the object quickly out of sight, and again acknowledge him.

“You’re upset because you really wanted to play with the glass snail. I’m sorry I can’t let you have it, but it’s very fragile.”

For me, it’s important to do this only when it really is necessary. Breakable things, dangerous things, valuable things. Not just “my life is easier if you don’t have this” things.

Whatever the situation, start off by staying calm, taking a deep breath, and making sure that you really need to intervene. When Leon has something I don’t want him to have, and I feel my stress rising, I try to pause for a moment and think about the big picture. Is this object really important in the grand scheme of things? What’s the lowest level of available intervention that will work? Can I just let it go and sort it out later? (It’s not always easy, I hasten to add. But that’s what I aim for.)

I’m absolutely positive that there are ideas that I’ve missed! Chime in in the comments for other things you’ve tried for gently retrieving forbidden objects from your exploratory toddler. I’d especially welcome suggestions that you’ve used with older toddlers, as my experience currently tops out at 19 months.

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About The Author: Juliet Kemp

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Juliet Kemp lives in London, UK, and blogs at Twisting Vines. She is thoroughly enjoying her attachment parenting journey.

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