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.

Photo Credits


About The Author: Juliet Kemp

julietk My NPN Posts

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

7 Responses to Don’t Snatch

  1. Amy Carr

    My 1 year old and 3 year old sons used to do anything they could to hang on to something they shouldn’t have. We found ourselves pulling things, temper tantrums ( parents and adults ) and trying to catch them as they dashed away with their coveted loot. Finally one day, ( mostly out of defeat ) I said ” may Mommy please have that?”, and the heavens parted, angels sang , and my three year old said ” here you go” and parted with his beloved stolen item!! We as parents sometimes need to remember that children deserve to be treated with ” the golden rule” too!!

  2. Jessica

    I appreciate this article…however, I don’t think I agree. One of the problems I believe we have today is that we have forgotten to instill in our children a level of respect and obedience. I do have a one year old and a three year old. We have not really “baby proofed” our house because I believe my children need to learn to obey their mother. This means that things that will physically hurt them are put up but other than that, it is all out. It is a lot of work but they have learned that when I say “Don’t touch” or “That is not for your hands.” then I mean it. I am assuming you do not believe in spanking but we do. Not all the time but for disrespect and disobedience. If my son has something he should not, I tell him to “Give it to mommy.” If he obeys, I say thank you and smile. If he does not I slap his hand lightly and tell him he needs to obey and ask for the object again. My children do not have a fear of me but they have learned to respect and obey their parents. And this does not mean I spend all day spanking. I find that firm words and an occasional spank or slap on the hand has reminded them I am their parent. A firm voice does not mean yelling either. I think you have some good points but I do think that sometimes we are too passive, too easy going and too in a hurry to be ‘sensitive’ and end up blurring the line between parent and child.

    • Lauren Wayne  

      At NPN, we do not advocate for corporal punishment and consider all physical punishment harmful to children, but we thought this post could facilitate a respectful, educational conversation about alternatives to hitting. Thank you to the commenter and to any respondents for keeping a respectful tone.

    • Juliet Kemp

      You’re right, I don’t hit my child, and as Lauren has already said, I think that hitting a child, however “lightly”, is harmful to them.

      I think that true respect is something that is earned in part through modelling – that we respect those who respect us. Hitting isn’t respectful, and so I don’t think it promotes a mutually respectful relationship. At a very young age it may make children more compliant, but that doesn’t last as they get older. Putting the time into a mutually respectful relationship now is an investment in my relationship with my son as he gets older and moves out into the world.

      The evidence is that what children learn from punishment is “don’t get caught”, and that the only reason not to do something is because of the punishment. It doesn’t help them to internalise their own values and make their own choices. So, again, as they get older, they haven’t learnt to make good decisions for themselves, especially when there’s no one else around to enforce obedience to an external standard. What I want is for my child to learn to make his own good decisions when I’m not there. I think treating him respectfully and modelling the behaviour I want to see facilitates that. Hitting doesn’t. It just teaches that people get their way by using violence. Boundaries can be set without hitting, and as you say, a firm voice isn’t the same as yelling.

      I actually don’t want to teach my child to be compliant, either. I certainly don’t want him to be compliant to authority (or to perceived authority, or to his stronger-minded peers…) as a teenager and an adult. I want him to be independent-minded and thoughtful and prepared to stand up for his own values. Again, I’d rather put the effort into parenting him now in a way that encourages those qualities, than push him into “compliance” now and be surprised when he makes bad decisions or is easily swayed by others in his teens and adulthood.

  3. Kellie

    One of my favorite techniques for dealing with this situation is to agree to a certain amount of time that the child can examine/do something, and then they will give it up. When they are little, they can’t tell time, but we count together. So, for example, my 2 year old picks up my nail clippers and I tell him that he can look at them while we count to 5, and then I am going to need them back. I count to 5 and then I ask for them back. This almost always works for me. A lot of the time, the child gets so excited about counting that they forget whatever it was they were going to play with to begin with. And I always have a good what-we-are-going-to-do-next idea to move them along to.

    • Juliet Kemp

      Oh, fab, I like that! L is very into his numbers at the moment so that would likely work great for us too 🙂 as he’s getting older saying “I need that back now, please” is working more often, too. I do think that minimising the times when I insist helps, as it means I’m not always saying “no, give it back” and gives him less to (need to) push against.

    • Sara

      Great idea! I’m going to try it out.