After the eighth time that I pulled my 18-month-old son from traffic on various city streets, I began to wonder what could possibly be going on in his head. Was he training for an Olympic sprinting career? Bored and seeking a thrill? Regardless of his motivation, I knew it was time to seek out some advice for how to keep a handle on my escape artist.
Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York City, assured me that I'm not alone in repeatedly losing track of my child on the sidewalk (not to mention in museums, restaurants, and grocery stores). Bolting from a parent's side is a toddler's way of exploring his independence. "Starting around 18 months, toddlers suddenly realize, 'I'm my own person,'" Dr. Klein says. So they're eager to get out of the stroller and check out the world on their own. "They don't understand that when they run off adults can't necessarily see or protect them," she explains. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to help your toddler stay safe -- and to learn the self-control he needs to remain within range.
Your toddler may not realize that it's essential to stay close unless you spell it out for her, says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Toddler Book. Keep your directions short and clear. You might say, "We're going to stay on the sidewalk and hold hands while we walk to the post office." Your toddler is capable of understanding simple instructions, though you'll likely need to repeat yourself many times before the message sticks.
Young kids often forget safety expectations midway through an outing and take off. Instead of simply shouting "Stop!" (which is actually a very abstract concept for a toddler, who has to figure out what it is he's supposed to stop doing), give a concrete command identifying a specific body part or movement -- such as "Thomas, stop your feet!" or "Stay on the grass!" suggests Karen Sloneker, director of Music Together First Notes, a program for children in Pittsburgh. Once you've got your kid by the hand again, reiterate the rules.
Outline what will happen if your child puts himself in danger. Dr. Klein suggests reminding her that she'll have to sit in the stroller or go home if she can't stay by your side. Then follow through. Once your toddler has calmed down, explain why you cut the outing short: "Running into the street is dangerous. I have to keep you safe. Tomorrow we can try walking to the park again."
One wise way to keep your kid from wandering off: Try wiggling, dancing, or marching your way from one place to the next. When you make traveling from the grocery store to the pharmacy a "copy me" game, he'll be more engaged in the activity and less likely to dart, Sloneker says. (Practice these moves at home so he'll know how to do them when you're out and about.) You can also liven things up by singing a song together as you go. If you sense that your child is about to take off in another direction, step in his path and then continue your shuffles or hops to redirect him.
In certain situations (when navigating a crowded street or a busy supermarket), the wisest choice is to keep your child nestled in the stroller with a book to keep her occupied. Most experts don't recommend using a toddler harness. "When the leash is on, a toddler doesn't learn to pay attention to her environment or to control herself," explains Dr. Sonna. "She only learns that she can't roam when it's on -- but when it's off, she can move freely."
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.