Discipline Language for Grabbing Toys

Two young boys fighting over a scooterYoung children grabbing toys from each other is common exchange.  If your child grabs toys often, it’s good to be prepared.  There are ways to best address this behavior before, during and after it happens.  While I wouldn’t expect a parent to use all of the ideas below at once, some combination of several should be helpful.

Be proactive – Proactive techniques are to encourage wanted behaviors and stay ahead of unwanted behaviors.

  • Setting Clear Boundaries – This is a pep talk that you might have before your next playdate arrives.  The language here starts with setting one goal, “Today on our playdate I need you to take turns with the toys.”  Next provide ways your child can be successful, “You may ask for a turn, you may wait for a turn, find toys to trade or ask for help.”  Then  you might remind of the logical negative consequence (explanation below), “If you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 10 minutes.” Finally you might prompt them to participate, “So how do you ask for a turn?”
  • Catch the Good Behaviors – Once the playdate starts, the idea is to catch and encourage the good behavior as it happens.  This is saying “You asked for a turn, that was nice!” and “You waited for a turn, you were patient!”  Describe the behavior and label.
  • Positive Directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive.  Negative directions start with “no,” and “don’t,” and “stop.”  Positive directions tell children what TO Do and are far easier for children to follow.  This is saying “ask for a turn,” or “wait for a turn,” rather than “no grabbing,” or “don’t grab.”

Discipline in the moment – The steps of positive discipline are meant to provide a framework for moving through a discipline exchange.  Once the grabbing happens, some combination of the skills below should help you move through in an effective way.

  • I messages – I messages allow you to voice your or the victim child’s emotion and lay blame on the behavior.  This might be “I am frustrated, people are grabbing,” or “He is upset, he wasn’t finished with that.”  I messages are also to avoid you messages which blame the child.  A you message, which you want to avoid are “I am upset with you, you are always grabbing.”  You messages make the listener defensive.
  • Empathy – This validates the child’s emotion and why they are feeling that way.  It lets the child that you are about to discipline know that you are still understanding how they feel as you move forward.  Empathy might be “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good intention behind the behavior.  It’s shifting how you view the behavior.  Positive intent might be “I know you really want a turn,” rather than “you are so rude.”  In this case positive intent might be reminding yourself you are talking to a three year old.
  • Choices – When offering a child choices, remember to offer to positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do.  This might be asking “do you want to give it back to me or to him?” or “Do you want to play with this or this while you wait for a turn?”
  • Natural consequences –  Natural consequences are what just might happen in life if the child does or continues the behaviors.  This would be “If you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.”  These start to be more effective closer to four years old.
  • Logical positive consequences – Logical positives are if the good behavior happens, then the good related outcome.  This might be “If you can give that back nicely, I will be sure you get the next turn” or “I will play with you while you wait.”
  • Logical negative consequences – Logical negatives are if the bad behavior happens, then the bad related outcome.  This might be “If you are grabbing toys, you will have to play separately” or “you may not play with the toy for 10 minutes.”

To read more about the steps of positive discipline, read our related blog posts at https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

Coach out of the moment – If you are repeatedly disciplining a behavior, it is time to start coaching.  Coaching is more actively teaching about and encouraging the good behaviors.

  • Avoid lectures –  Most children are too young to listen long or old enough to tune you out.  Be more engaging.
  • Tell stories – If you are at all creative you can make up stories related to turn taking and sharing.  When our girls were little I told Amy and Katie stories.  If the girls had a big upset at the swing set that night Amy and Katie would have a remarkably similar upset at the sandbox.  Your stories should model good problem solving and emotion management.
  • Role play – Go back through the scenario to find better ways to manage.  The child can be themselves or the other child as you go back through.
  • Puppet shows –  This is often an engaging way to teach children about behavior.  You can use puppets, doll babies or action figures to model better behaviors.
  • Hypotheticals – This is asking “What ifs…” when all is well.  Plan to do this over lunch or driving to preschool.  In this case it would be asking something like “What would you do if you got to the sand box and you really wanted to use a shovel but there were only two and other children already had them?”
  • Draw pictures – This is drawing pictures of it going well.  You or they can draw pictures of them asking for a turn or finding something to trade.
  • Play games – In this case you might introduce easy board games and talk a lot about waiting for a turn and taking turns.
  • Art projects – In our preschool we practice turn taking by sitting 6 children down to a glue and mosaic art project with only two bottles of glue.  We prepare them by explaining they will have to share and talk about how to ask for a turn and what they can do while they wait before we start.  We coach them through and add a third glue bottle a few minutes in.
  • Read stories –  Good related storybooks include:
  1. The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  2. Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  3. Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  4. Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  5. Sharing is Fun by Cole
  6. The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  7. I am Sharing by Mayer
  8. It’s Mine by Lionni
  9. One for You, One for Me by Albee
  10. Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger
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