Q&A: toddler running away from parent in public

A reader writes:

"Running away from mommy in public places. I thought you would have some insight on this living in the city and having 2 mobile boys. For the most part he will stick near me in stores, etc., but if something catches his eye he is gone like a shot. I especially worry about this when he is with Daddy as he is not as hyper-vigilant as I am. Yesterday in a dept. store he was sitting on the floor next to me and when I glanced back (I know, never take your eyes off him) he was gone. Thank God I heard the bell for the dressing room and knew where he was. He got a stern reprimand and we left immediately. In the car I tried to explain why mommy was so upset, but how much does he understand? The lure of the forbidden is too much sometimes. Anyway, I am not anxious to try a leash, and would like some alternatives for the times he WILL NOT sit in a cart or stroller. He needs to walk sometimes and also to learn about boundaries."

Remember back before you had kids when you thought those harnesses were barbaric? And then once your kid started walking they started to make sense?

This is such a tough age, because while 2-year-olds can understand intellectually that they're not supposed to run away from you, they just can't seem to control the impulses. You can talk to them about it, and they'll even affirm/rehearse it verbally--"I stay with Mama"--but that doesn't mean that they won't take off like a dog after a squirrel when something interesting catches their eye.

The one thing we did (and I know tons of other parents with this exact same rule) that seemed to help the most was to institute a "hold hands or ride in the stroller" rule. Those were the only two options, we never backed down, and if neither of these things were happening we stopped dead in the street until he'd hold our hand or get into the stroller.

But that's only really helpful for when you're walking around. El C took a movement class for toddlers with a teacher who knows more about little kids than almost anyone I've ever met. One of her many great ideas is that it is easier for toddlers to control their movements while they're in motion than it is for them to stay still. So, for example, you can get them to run around in a circle, then change direction, then start jumping up and down, more easily than you can get them to stand still for 5 seconds. From my observations of toddlers, I'd say that this is dead on.

If we're aware of this, it would make sense to try to work things so that a kid has more freedom while s/he's in motion, and less freedom while still. So while you're walking to the store your child will probably be able to stay on course (while holding your hand if it's a busy area), but while you're reading the labels your child should probably be contained in the cart.

If you have no way to contain your child, or you want to do a little boundary-stretching to see how impulse control is progressing, you can try giving your child a specific job to do while you're shopping. Looking for a can with a blue label, finding a skirt with a yellow tag, counting the dollars in your wallet, etc. Some kids will take this seriously and become engrossed in the task, others won't (and will still run away from you).

Another idea would be to bell the cat. You could get him squeaky shoes, or a jangly necklace to wear, or ask him to sing his favorite song 40 times in a row. Then, even if he gets away from you, you'll be able to hear where he is.

I'm getting a little facile here. The real problem is that this, unlike so many other parenting problems, is actually a high-stakes issue. A kid who runs away from you could get hurt or taken or seriously frightened. I don't have any sure-fire techniques that are guaranteed to keep your kid from running away from you (that's what the harness* is for). I just remember that this phase made me exhausted and cranky every time we left the house. It's hard work staying on top of a speedy little kid bent on giving you the slip every other minute.

I wish you speed and stamina.

(This doesn't have anything to do with the question, but I wonder if parents start spanking when their kids start running away from them. My first reaction the one time El C ran into the street wasn't to spank him [I spontaneously burst into tears and started hyperventilating], but I can see why it would make sense to someone else, even someone who was generally opposed to spanking. Any thoughts on this?)

* Am I the only one who thinks the One Step Ahead catalog is the SkyMall catalog of parenting? So many totally unnecessary items, and yet while you're reading the blurbs you can't imagine how you've made it this far without owning everything in it. OneStepAhead is to SkyMall as this is to this.