Friday, July 13, 2012

My toddler runs off ahead of me and yelling and screaming don’t work

It can be frightening for us and dangerous for our child when they run off.  They run ahead at the mall and disappear around the corner or worse yet, they run out the door into a parking lot and straight into the path of a speeding vehicle.  We know how dangerous these situations can be but our children don’t.  They haven’t yet developed enough logical thinking nor experienced the fear that we have, so the challenge is getting them to cooperate and behave with caution without truly understanding why.

Our children often run off ahead of us and sometimes even do it while looking over their shoulder and laughing at us because they can.  Basically, it’s fun to do because they usually feel small, unimportant, and manipulated and this becomes an instant opportunity to do something that makes them feel powerful and big, or it gives them inappropriate attention.  This is especially true if they know you have an issue with them running ahead.  Our challenge as parents is to help them understand, teach them about safety, and to do it by seeing the world through their eyes.

Here are some DOS and DON’TS for teaching and to help gain their cooperation:
  • DON’T over react, yell, or punish when they run off.  It gives their behavior instant value and they’ll do it often.
  • DON’T try and teach safety issues when they’re smiling and running away.  They won’t be able to hear you through their excitement and feeling of power.
  • DO allow them to help you come up with the “rules” for going into the store, such as holding your hand, staying in the carriage, walking with you, etc.  Don’t forget that the key is to allow them to help you on this.
  • DO give them something to stay focused on while in the mall or the store, such as giving them a picture of something to find while you are in there or being in charge of a sibling or carrying something important.  At my suggestion, a friend of mine once gave his preschooler son his pocket-sized golf score clicker to click every time he saw something that was the color blue.  Get creative and find something with beads or something that counts, to allow your child to keep track of the number of items you’re putting in your shopping cart.
  • DO look for opportunities often to get down to your child’s eye level and explain safety issues, for example, when you see people crossing the street or other children walking cooperatively with their parents.  You don’t want to scare your child about predators, but you do want to teach them about keeping themselves safe and sticking close to you.
  • DO show your child how happy and excited you are when they cooperate and stay close to you out in public.

A friend with two preschoolers came to me for some advice.  When parking at a store, her children would immediately try to run off toward the store through the large parking lot as soon as she released them from their car seats.  I suggested she have them help her make signs using yellow poster board, black markers, and some paint stir sticks.  The signs could read something like, “CHILDREN WALKING” or “PLEASE DRIVE SLOW”.  The children were instructed to march in a single file slowly holding the signs high in the air and with Mom bringing up the rear.  She told them that their job was to get cars to drive slowly so everyone would be safe.  They felt important, motorists knew enough to slow down, and Mom received the cooperation she wanted.  It even created some excitement for the children in wanting to go to the store and “make a parade.”

Being successful as a parent requires us to do all that we can to see the world through our child’s eyes.  They see it all in a different way and our ability to teach and raise our children will be far greater if we can understand their perspective.  It’s much easier to demand, force, and yell at them to get what we want.  But all that does is create compliant children and compliant children grow up to become compliant adults; those of us who live our lives for others, only know how to follow, and find themselves happy with whatever they can get.  I don’t know about you, but I want my children to live their lives for themselves and to follow the message of who they are that is written on their heart.  I want my children to live their dreams and be leaders, not just followers.  I want my children to reach out and ask for what they want and not just be happy with what others want to give them.  Raising your children to live their dreams requires a different approach to parenting then what our parents knew at the time we were children.  Open your heart to knew ideas and watch your child truly grow to the way they were intended.

Bill Corbett is the author of the award-winning parenting book series, LOVE, LIMITS, & LESSONS: A PARENT'S GUIDE TO RAISING COOPERATIVE KIDS (in English and in Spanish) and the executive producer and host of the public access television show CREATING COOPERATIVE KIDS. Bill provides parent coaching and keynote presentations to parent and professional audiences across the country. Bill's practical experience comes as a father of 3 grown children, a grandfather of two, and a stepdad to three, and resides in the area with his loving wife Elizabeth and teenage step daughter Olivia.  Get more parenting help at


  1. I love the idea of the clicker at the store! Genius! :) Thanks for posting!

  2. I love this post, thanks for the ideas. I love the part about wanting children to follow who they are by what is written on their heart!
    Lori @ Cachey Mama’s Classroom

  3. Thank you ladies, for reading the post and commmenting! If you like the ideas, I post lots more just like them on my Facebook page every day at, just in case you'd like some more. Let me know how I can help you!

  4. I love your suggestions for keeping toddlers safe while still respecting and empowering them! And the golf score clicker idea is awesome! I pinned your post to my Discipline Pinterest Board at

  5. I'm sorry, I'm all for seeing the world through a child's eyes, and providing lots of respect and freedom, but toddlers who run off in parking lots are at risk of being seriously hurt. There is nothing in the least bit spirit crushing about insisting that young children stay near and hold your hand in parking lots - period. It's not something that needs endless talking about, negotiation or creativity on the part of a parent. Insisting that a child hold your hand in a parking lot is not going to lead to a compliant child. It's going to lead to a safe, secure child who understands that there are times for freedom and times when there are boundaries.Parents have a responsibility to keep children safe and healthy, and sometimes that means insisting that they do something they may not want to do, like take medicine, or hold hands in the parking lot.


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