Q: One morning this week, we were on a walk and my toddler took off running down the sidewalk. I was wearing his 3-week-old brother in a baby carrier, which limited my ability to chase him. I called several times for him (with increasing intensity) to stop and wait for momma. (Also tried saying “Red: stop,” which usually works.) He eventually started pausing to look at me and then just took off again in a playful, nearly taunting, way. (So he heard me…)
I am wondering what you recommend while he is still pretty young. Short of just not taking him out, or confining him to a stroller, I’m having a tough time with ideas. –J.B.
A: It’s truly scary when our kids dash off and don’t realize the life-and-death importance of listening to us. Especially when our go-to lines aren’t working. Why do they do that?!?
The serious answer is that kids have three healthy needs for growth: connection, experience, and power. (This is from Language of Listening, the framework I follow.) Whatever they’re doing at any given time is their way of meeting a need.
Sometimes our kids are meeting all three needs at once. For example, he’s pausing to look at you partly to make sure you’re still there. That’s the need for connection. He may want to move his body fast. That’s his need for experience. He may be enjoying knowing the right way to the park and leading you there, which meets his need for power, as does not doing what you tell him. You know your kid best. Guessing his need helps you with your next steps.
But first, you need to get him back right away. Actions speak louder than words, so
Stop in your tracks.
You could squat down and hold out your arms for a running hug. Call out, “Where’s (your child’s name)?” It helps if you’ve played this game before at home down a long hallway, which is great fun.
Or you could yell out, “This way!” with that big circular “come back here” arm signal. Again, stay in place. Often kids stop when they think they’re going the wrong way.
It could also work to join his game, if he hasn’t gotten too far away: “Wow, you’re fast! OK, now run back to me!”
When you have him back, even though your tone may be a mixture of relief and frustration, focus on just the facts, ma’am. “You were playing a game. You were teasing me by running. That was too far: not safe.”
That’s called “Say what you see” in Language of Listening. This first step validates your child and holds your boundaries without lecturing or punishing.
Now you can help him find a way to meet his need … but in a way that’s OK with you.
What is OK with you? Can he go a certain distance and come back? Do you want him to point out to you the spot he’s going to run to before he takes off? As you know, it wouldn’t be realistic–concrete or consistent enough–if the rule is, say, that he can do anything as long as he stops when you say “Red light.”
The second step is to “Offer a can-do” (though with kids 3 and older, you’d invite them to provide the solution):
“You want to move your body. And you must be closer to me to stay safe on the sidewalk. [Crouch down and point.] Do you see that pole with the yellow sign? You can run to that pole and back. … Wow, you really ran! Go again!”
“You want to race and, aww man, I can’t run very well right now. Let’s tiptoe really fast together! No? I bet you have an idea.”
“You want to be in front. The person in front is the leader. The leader walks. You be the leader and I will follow you.”
This can-do strategy is useful because you probably realize that he cannot, developmentally, walk peacefully next to you without ever running again. 🙂
Acknowledge any bit of good.
The third step in Language of Listening is “Name a strength.”
“You are walking near me. You know how to stay safe.”
“You ran right to that spot and then you came back. You are responsible!”
“You’re holding my hand to cross the street. You follow our rules for walks.”
The premise here is that kids act according to who they believe they are. Kids have every possible inner strength, and we can build their sense of self-worth simply by looking for examples of those strengths and pointing them out.
But let’s say running away is a frequent problem on your walks, and you both need a reset. That calls for a dose of “Success training.”
Heaping acknowledgment on successes is quite effective for little ones (and probably all of us). The key is to put your child in a situation where he can experience success over and over. You can start things off as soon as you leave the house: let him tell you the rules of going for a walk.
“We’re walking to the park. How do we walk on a walk? Do we … walk on our hands? Nooo. Do we … race ahead on the sidewalk? Nooo. You got it. You show me what we do. Oooh, very nice. We walk together. And if you feel a need to run ahead? Yep, you pick a spot and ask me. You know what to do on a walk!”
Depending on how worried you are that he’s about to bolt, acknowledge his successes during the walk pretty frequently, but at random intervals. Then gradually taper it.
If it’s critical to you that your child never runs from your side during a walk, you can accomplish that by turning around and going home, the moment he runs, every single time. Personally, I don’t find that to be super realistic. For one thing, he needs to go to the park–and you need him to go to the park! Plus it doesn’t build skills by giving your child room to make mistakes and try again (fail fast, as they say). But with some things–or on some days–we’re not willing to give that room. If that’s the case, before you leave the house, you can pretend practice what will happen in various scenarios. Kids find it especially hilarious if you’re the kid and they’re the parent.
You can think of other ways to give your child chances to practice. Randomly on walks, for example, I used to sing a song to the tune of Frère Jacques. I’d do the steps with my daughter: “Walking, walking. Walking, walking. Hop hop hop! Hop hop hop! Running, running, running. Running, running, running. Now we stop. Now we stop.” This little game was useful for getting my toddler moving forward when walks were taking forever–but it can help your little one practice following directions, too.
If all else fails, go home.
What about when things just won’t stay on track? It’s possible your child is hungry, tired, or overstimulated, and so this isn’t the right activity right now. If you suddenly figure that out, say so and go.
“Oh man, it’s way past snack time! It’s actually pretty hard to keep it together when you’re hungry. We’ve got to get you some food.” (If, you know, you forgot to pack some–not that that ever happens.)
Or maybe you’re just done. You can say so in a matter-of-fact tone. “I am out of patience, sweetie. If you choose to run off again, I will take you home.” And then, without further ado, do.
Like this tip? Get more examples of how to use Language of Listening in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.