It was my son Sam’s third birthday and we were celebrating at Ontario Place. He was happily exploring the tunnels and slides of a toddler play area and I had my eye on him — or at least I thought I did, until he suddenly disappeared. I looked calmly for about a minute and a half, at which point some other parents picked up on my panic and started looking, too. At the five-minute mark, aware that the park was surrounded by water, I ran to security. They shut down the place and I watched in horror as a phalanx of people with walkie-talkies fanned out. “You stay right here!” one said to me. So I waited, and wept. After what felt like an eternity, a woman came toward me, with my very cheerful boy in her arms. He’d reached the other side of the park, and was halfway up a rope net when he was spotted. The rest of the day was coloured by tenderness — and a heightened sense of vigilance on my part.
Every parent has a harrowing story about the toddler who got away, and the frantic search that ensued. Toddlers have a propensity to run off in public spaces, and they have an uncanny ability to disappear seemingly in an instant. How can we teach tots to stay close by and keep them safe?
We asked parent educator Mary Ann Avey, who works for Childreach, a nonprofit early years agency in London, Ont., why toddlers take off in the first place. “This is the age of exploration,” she says. Toddlers are insatiably curious, but they don’t have the cognitive capacity yet to understand why it’s OK to rip around in the backyard but not at the water park.
They’re also keen to test their newfound independence; you’ll see this as your toddler streaks across the playground, then turns to see if you’re still there. How far a toddler goes is a matter of individual temperament, says Avey. “For some, their first reaction to something new is, ‘Let’s go check it out now.’ They’re the ones who barely look back.” These kids are more difficult to manage than a child who is more cautious by nature.
Avey has offered a few simple guidelines for parents to keep in mind.
Be clear about the rules before you go out
Recognize that the rules will differ depending on where you’re going. Children this young can adapt if they know what to expect. Avey suggests you ask your child to repeat the rule back to you for a little extra reinforcement. You might say, “It’s important for you to be safe. When we’re at the grocery store, you must stay in the cart.” At the mall, he has to hang onto mom or dad’s hand at all times. Or maybe the rule at the playground is that he can run free as soon as the climbers are in sight, or as long as the two of you can still see or wave to each other. In really difficult places — a busy airport, for example — you might have to insist he or she ride in the stroller.
If the rule is broken, enforce a consequence. That may mean abandoning your shopping cart and heading straight for the car, says Avey. “But children do learn through consequences.”
Toddlers will outgrow the runaway stage, as their cognitive capacity increases and they’re able to remember the rules and follow them. As with all things toddler, a big part of your job as a parent is to keep your child safe while he explores the limits of his independence. It often comes down to whatever works for your family. I resorted to carrying Sam around on my shoulders in busy places. I knew right where he was — and he enjoyed the view.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue with the headline Escape Artist (p. 82).