How do I get my preschooler to stop running away from me in public?

 In Preschooler, Q&A, Toddler

They’re small, they’re fast—and they make our hearts stop when they run off in a crowd. True confession: My son once sprinted away in the middle of a GapKids store. After frantically checking the endless clothes racks he’d darted toward and enlisting some kind fellow shoppers and a clerk (all the while envisioning him swallowed up in the great mall beyond the entrance) he turned up in the display window, standing stock still. He was pretending to be a mannequin!

Some parents swear by a backpack harness, a leash, or keeping their kid strapped into a stroller. Whether you go that route or not, the early preschool years are a good time to teach your child some safe ways to avoid harm. You won’t always have a stroller or a free hand—and they do need to learn to walk out in the world with you eventually.

WHY it happens:

Toddlers and young preschoolers run off because of the scary combo of impulsivity + physicality + no common sense—including no sense of consequences, like getting lost or being hit by a car or any of the other disasters that lurk in our mama minds.

A store, park, airport, or other new place is fresh turf to zoom around in. And zooming around is one of their favorite things to do. It gives a glorious sense of being On My Own! Two more developmentally normal tendencies fuel the take-off rocket: limit testing (how far can I go before she notices?) and in-the-moment curiosity (hey, what’s over there?).

So to some extent this is a stage that’s common before kids know any better. That said, they can be taught that it’s a non-negotiable. In fact, it’s best when they learn early, before dashing off and getting a rise out of you become a mischievous habit. 

TRY this:

  • Practice! Give your 3-year-old low-stakes chances to walk with you—around your house or at a quiet park, say. Rehearse holding hands and freezing when you say, “Stop!” or “Wait.” Next try uncrowded stores.
  • Use your tone of voice to your advantage. Certain uber-safety rules like this demand sending a pretty firm message. You don’t need to yell or threaten, but neither do you want to be too soft or uncertain (“Please stop, okay?”). Channel your best no-nonsense, I-mean-business tone.
  • State the rules. Make clear that walking solo is a privilege. Before you go out, let your child know that running off means that he or she will have to ride in a shopping cart, be carried, get strapped into the stroller, or leave the place—and follow through. Even if it messes with your plans, it’s worth it for the long game. Consistency really makes a difference on this.
  • Try positive phrasings. “Don’t run away!” sounds like a dare. Better: “Always hold Mama’s hand in the store.”
  • Play games like Red Light, Green Light or Freeze Tag.  They make practicing listening and rule-following skills fun.
  • Avoid times and places where you just KNOW it will be a big problem. Only you can decide whether the farmer’s market, parade, or mega-mall are worth the challenge, depending on your child’s stage, your willingness to bring a stroller, whether you’re alone, and so on. No sense setting you and your child up for failure.
  • Make sure your outings include plenty of “yes” places where your child can run free. Enclosed backyards, children’s museums, and indoor play spaces give you a break from worry and help your child learn that while some places aren’t safe for running, others (with your okay) are.

Kinstantly KidNotes

Know what your child is thinking, doing (and needs) at every stage.

Luckily it IS a stage.

With time, and practice—and your blood pressure intact!—your preschooler will learn to walk the walk, safely.

—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.

Photo: Mike Liu/Flickr

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