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How to Stop a Toddler Running Away: No More Darting Off

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I’ve gotten so many questions and comments lately about a particular area of disobedience with small children, I wanted to take a minute and address it! When it comes to a toddler running away when called in a parking lot or darting off when he’s supposed to stay close, there’s really no room for compromise.

Recently I wrote a post about toddlers and first-time listening aka first-time obedience. My purpose in writing the post was to help moms understand that first-time obedience is a learned skill and must be taught.

Often times, parents mistakenly assume that because a friend’s child is naturally more compliant than hers, that her child must simply be “strong-willed” or “a handful.” (read more about disciplining the strong-willed child here)

Chances are that friend of hers has trained her child in first-time obedience, quite possibly without knowing she was doing it.

Darting off, or running away can become a dangerous habit for small children. So today, we are going to walk through how to break that habit and train a good habit in its place.

Training first-time obedience is fundamentally the same regardless of the action you require. You must make your expectation clear, consistent and complete. Read more about that here.

The most effective child-training in regards to first-time obedience is done long before the need arises.

toddler and mom playing in park learning how to stop a toddler running away

Practice Your Toddler Running Away at Home.

Use daily opportunities to train your child. Both of the examples I laid out in this post here are behavior situations that come up when you and your child are at home.

So, use the safety of your home to practice first-time obedience on a daily basis.

Doing so makes getting first-time obedience when you are out-and-about far more likely.

Use training in every area you can. Such as nutrition, sleeping, bedtime, picking up toys, etc.

Don’t Be Afraid to Stop Your Toddler From Running Away

Following through with consequences and being consistent in your parenting and disciplining efforts are the most difficult obstacles parents face.

I hear it all the time… “I know what you’re saying is true, but my lack of follow through is the cause of all my parenting troubles. Why is it just so difficult to follow through!?”

I dig deep into the real reason parenting follow through is so difficult here. The truth is, following through with consequences is difficult due to fear.

Fear of judgment and fear of ruining your child.

Both of which are a lie.

If you truly desire to raise well-behaved, really great kids, your desire for doing so, must trump your fear of judgment or wrecking your kid.

How to Stop a Toddler Running Away

Let’s get practical and walk through step by step how you are going to stop your toddler running away when called or darting off.

Make yourself crystal clear!

#1. Make it clear ahead of time that when walking through the parking lot, it is completely unacceptable to venture away from mommy, dart off, run away, or disobey in any way.

Don’t assume for a second that your child knows the implications of danger. He doesn’t. His cognitive ability at this age is cause and effect.

He won’t know the repercussions of his behavior unless he experiences a negative consequence from it. Since the negative consequence of his running off could be getting hit by a car, this is not a parenting instance where you can allow natural consequences.

Have a short conversation with him before going into any store. Tell him that a toddler running away when called or darting off is unacceptable and dangerous behavior. And that because he has displayed the poor behavior before, you will be holding his hand through the parking lot.

Furthermore, if he would like to have the privilege of walking without holding Mommy’s hand at some point, he is going to have to show first-time obedience regularly, including walking hand-in-hand through the parking lot without kicking, crying, or carrying-on.

Be consistent with your standards.

#2. Be consistent to require him to hold your hand. Do not waiver from the training or allow exceptions. Don’t give him a chance to walk through the parking lot without holding your hand until you are certain he will stay close by your side.

One thing you can be absolutely certain of is that if you hold his hand through the parking lot one day, witness him disobey at home the next day, then give him a chance to walk without your hand the day after that, you’re setting him up for failure.

You are training him that mommy doesn’t mean what she says and that consequences are negotiable and manipulatable.

Hold his hand every time you do not want him to dart off or run away.

Now, here’s the thing… I know what you’re thinking. “The point is for him not to run away so that I don’t have to hold his hand. And anyway, he throws a fit if I try to hold him.”

I hear ya. The next step is where you really need to pay attention. The next step is the game-changer.

Completely follow through.

#3. Be complete as you walk through the parking lot while holding his hand every time. If he is behaving well and tells you he won’t run off, hold his hand anyway.

If he is kicking and screaming, and you are essentially dragging him through the parking lot, hold his hand anyway.

When people begin to stare at you and wonder what the heck is going on, hold his hand anyway.

When you have to squeeze his little hand so tight, to prevent him from getting away, that you begin to worry about his hand, hold it anyway.

Step #3 is follow through. And follow through is the single most difficult parenting feat for many, many moms. It is also the one step that will make or break all of your parenting!

Follow through means your desire to train your child well, must be greater than you care about judgment and greater than your fear of ruining him.

Your child can not run off if you are holding his hand. And not running off is the goal. You must accomplish the goal.

Praise him for a job well done.

#4. Once you reach the car, leave the shopping cart for a moment and buckle him in his seat. If he walked pleasantly through the parking lot, make a really big deal about it!

Clap, sing, dance, hug and cheer for his job well done. Read more about praising your child here.

If he behaved poorly as you walked through the parking lot, praise the fact that you both made it to the car safely.

Say, “Yay! We made it safely! I’m so glad. Because you did not walk through the parking lot nicely, you will not be getting the treat I have for you. Next time you are going to do better. You won’t scream or cry.”

Begin training a good habit.

#5. Once your child is walking with you hand in hand pleasantly, and you have seen first-time obedience on a regular basis, train him to walk next to you using this method here.

You can replace bad habits with good ones, but only after the bad habit has been broken and authority is established and regularly heeded.

Common Questions for Stopping a Toddler from Running Away

What about when I try to let his hand go next time and he runs away again?

You won’t allow him to walk without being held until you have seen repeated first-time obedience on a regular basis, including walking nicely while holding your hand.

Won’t people think I am hurting him if he’s screaming as we walk through the parking lot?

How long will I have to train him before he’ll walk next to me without darting off?

Isn’t there a secret or a trick to teaching this?

What about making it into a game, so that he thinks it’s fun to walk by mommy?

Doesn’t this make me a mean mom?

No one else has been given the task of raising your child. It’s all on you and you can’t raise the same child twice. Read about getting really good at parenting follow through here, then get to it.

What does this obedience thing boil down to?

Healthy fear. I know that if I mess around near the edge of a cliff, I may fall and die. Therefore, I have a healthy fear of that cliff.

Your child is not equipped with the ability to understand the severity of consequences. He needs you to train him. Train SO that he understands, not WHEN he understands!

If he has no healthy fear of consequences from Mom, he will not heed to your authority.

Decide what is acceptable, make it known, set a consequence for disobedience, and follow through accordingly. (create age-appropriate consequences here)

This simple process is the summation of child training. A nutshell, if you will. Done right, it’s extremely effective. But only if you follow it fully. Your child is too valuable to allow fear to stop you from parenting well.


1 Comment

  • Michelle says:

    This article is filled with amazing tips! I saw a few back-pack leashes before and I also saw how people reacted negatively seeing them. I’m not a huge fan either.

    Thanks for sharing!

Hi there! I'm Mama Duck,

I'm a stay-at-home/work-at-home, homeschooling Mama of 4 beautiful kiddos, wife to my loving husband, Parenting Coach, Speaker, and Writer. I adore the sound of my children's giggles, that first sip of hot coffee, and a snuggly blanket fresh out of the dryer. Here on Faithful Parenting, my heart is to equip mamas with the skills, knowledge, and biblical wisdom to raise fantastic kids and build a tethered family!