The time Lindsay MacKenzie’s three-year-old son, Haiden, bolted in front of a pickup truck was easily the worst moment she’s had as a parent. “I’m so lucky the driver saw him just in time,” says MacKenzie. “I was in tears.”
While toddlers can also be runners, they can’t go very fast or get very far. But three- and four-year-olds who like to make a run for it can be down the street in a flash.
Their reasons for dashing off are likely to be different, too. Running is a new skill for toddlers, and they may want to practise it. For preschoolers, however, “running away might be one way of taking initiative, of exerting their independence,” explains Beth Stockton, an early childhood educator and a professor at George Brown College in Toronto.
Given that they’re too old for a harness, how do you prevent this frustrating behaviour?
1. Be ready for it You know your kid and whether she’s prone to darting off. “Maybe there are certain situations you need to avoid for a little while, to minimize your stress,” says Stockton. If leaving your kid with someone while you run errands isn’t an option, you can take other precautions, such as unloading the car first and then unbuckling your child from the car seat, so they go straight into the stroller or into the house while holding your hand.
MacKenzie, for one, keeps Haiden in his stroller more often than she’d prefer because she’s afraid he will run.
2. Distract and engage When three-year-old Miles* gets out into the cubby area of his daycare at the end of the day, he’ll often sprint away from his mom, Jenn Shapiro*. What’s worse, she says, “he’ll glance back at me and smile mischievously, so I know he’s trying to get a reaction.” In an effort to distract him from thoughts of running, Shapiro asks him questions, like what they’ll play together when they get home.
Engage your kid by offering something else to focus on. Assign a task (“You’re going to push the button when we get to the elevator”) or make a game of it (“Can you try to hop on one foot while you’re walking with Mommy and Daddy?”).
3. Give fair warning When heading into a situation you think could lead to a 100-metre dash, clearly outline what you’re about to do and how you expect your child to behave—as well as the consequences for breaking the rules. For example, say, “We’re going to go grocery shopping now, and I need you to stay beside me. If you don’t, you’ll have to hold my hand or sit in the grocery cart.” If your kid does run, follow through on the consequence. “You have to be very firm, because it’s a matter of safety—there isn’t a choice there,” says Carolee Crooks, director of healthy child development at the Child Development Institute in Toronto.
4. Avoid negative attention Make sure your kid’s escape attempts aren’t when she gets the most attention. “When they have the opportunity to take initiative in a safe place and practise their independence, really praise that,” says Stockton. “Praise their accomplishments; praise their behaviours: ‘Look how fast you’re running. Look at you way over there,’ for example.”
5. Get to the root of it Once you’ve captured your kid, try to find out what he was thinking. “That’s the first place to always start with children—to try to understand their point of view,” says Stockton. One day, when Stockton’s daughter was three, she ran away, making it to the other end of a large park before being stopped by a teen. When Stockton asked her daughter what she was doing, she replied, “I’m Franklin, and I’m going to school.” You may find out your kid was in an imaginary world or perhaps had seen a friend across the street. The behaviour isn’t always rooted in mischief.
The next step is to help your child understand your point of view. Explain that it was scary and unsafe, and that you can’t keep them safe when they’re not close by. “The ability to take another person’s point of view is still developing at this age,” says Stockton. Your child might not fully understand, but it’s still worth saying. Empathy takes practice.
Parent tip At the end of her rope after enduring months with a preschooler who’d bolt away whenever he could, Toronto mom Jenn Shapiro finally took her own mom’s advice and taught her son to freeze when she shouted “red light!” She practised it with him during playtime, making it into a game he enjoyed. “That took the power struggle out of it, and made it fun,” she says.
* Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our September 2016 issue with the headline, "Ready for takeoff," p. 54.