It’s every parent’s nightmare – losing your child in a public place. And yet, many toddlers love going off to explore, oblivious to – or perhaps in spite of – the fright it can cause their parents. Why?
According to parenting coach Terry Carson, it’s actually their very need to belong that can be driving children away – that and their increasing desire for control and independence.
The way parents respond can actually make the situation worse, Terry cautions. “Sometimes they begin to think it’s fun, especially when mom gives a look of concern – they got a reaction.”
Fortunately, this behaviour starts to wane as they get older, says Terry. “This one-year stretch causes the most concern. As they get a little bit older, they begin to understand more and they’re less likely to take off. A two-year-old is far more likely to take off than a four-year-old.”
Still, when any outing threatens to turn into an ordeal, how can parents manage their children without traumatizing them over the dangers of the world?
“Children can’t see the consequences of their action,” says Terry, explaining that it’s up to parents to show them the way. But with young children especially, it’s important to choose your words carefully. “We have to minimize trauma by watching the choices of the language and messaging we’re giving,” says Terry. He recommends pre-planning and practice as a way to avoid errant behaviour when you’re out and about. “When you’re in a situation where you’re concerned about their safety, be very clear at the front end. For example, be very clear that when you go out today shopping, they have to hold your hand. And be specific – they can’t go more than a foot away. Sometimes with young children you can actually practise holding hands, and show them what being a foot away from mommy is.”
Constable Megan McGarry of the Toronto Police Service Divisional Policing Support Unit and a School Resource Officer Coordinator agrees. “Before going out, or even on the ride there, have a conversation with the kids about where you are going and what the expectations will be. Stress the importance of staying together and maybe a potential reward for good behaviour.” She also reminds parents to discuss what the plan is if you are separated from each other.
Terry recommends giving positive instruction. “Rather than say don’t go onto the road, say something like ‘Feet should stay on the grass.’ Tell them what they can do.”
Also, give clear instructions. “Sometimes when you say stop, children don’t quite understand what it is they have to stop,” says Terry. “You need to say ‘Stop your feet.’ Or ‘Stop walking.’ You have to be clear that you want them to keep their feet still. Be very specific about what you mean when you say stop.”
Finally, “If you’re going to give a consequence, you have to make sure you’re going to follow through,” says Terry. “If you’re not prepared to follow through – we’re going to leave the restaurant, we’re going to go home – don’t say it. You must be prepared to follow through, even if it’s inconvenient.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Nov/Dec 2016.