Help, my kid always runs away!
Children’s curiosity is often misinterpreted as mischievous. Where they are discovering their surroundings, exploring their impact on the world and interpreting responses and reactions, some believe to see them calculating “how much they can get away with” and them “testing their boundaries”. I’ve written a little about boundaries already here and about holding children to adult standards here.
Children do not require us to set boundaries and limits, they need space to pitch their own comfort zones – a one year old will usually not stray far in a crowded or unfamiliar place if he has felt the vastness of running over a meadow or hiding behind trees in a forest. He will reach for our hand when we approach a train station or walk through a town packed with people. Very rare is a child who doesn’t have these instincts, however very common are children who have turned their back on them because they weren’t trusted to follow them. When we do not let children run, we do not allow them to learn to stay close. If we tell children they can’t…they believe they can’t and then they won’t. This applies here too; telling a child he cannot walk through a mass of people without holding a hand, or stop at a road when we say so, will bring him to act as we anticipate: pulling away from us and running away dangerously.
Allowing children to run as far as they please in safe spaces will not eliminate their compliance in other situations; it will support their instincts to stay close in those situations. By allowing them to experience their will and curiosity, their need is met and they don’t stagnate, trying to have it met.
Young children in particular need to follow their curiosity and their will, these being strong impulses required for learning. (Read “Terrible Twos? No, The Autonomy Phase” and “Oh no, then they’ll do as they please…The child’s will”.) We must allow the space for them to still these needs and explore their autonomy so that they may hone their abilities and further their knowledge and experience. When we know we will require them to hold a hand and even listen to our instruction, we must enable situations where they can be autonomous beforehand, preventing an overload of heteronomy when situations call for compliance (not to be mistaken for obedience. Read “The Detriment of Obedience”.)
When children have developed a tendency to run away, we must facilitate this need instead of trying to control them by means of traditional child-raising methods. YES, sometimes they need to hold our hand and they will be willing to do this if they can trust that we do our utmost to fulfill their needs and not constrict them unnecessarily. When parents implement leashes (which can also be metaphorical) to control and restrain their children, they work against their instincts and promote dangerous behavior instead of a healthy sense of comfort zones and personal responsibility.
Impulse control develops throughout childhood and varies from child to child; this means we can’t expect children to control their impulses per se, even when habits such as waiting at roads are in place. We must be closely connected to our children, enabling us to anticipate their moves and remind them of safety. When we tell children to “walk don’t run” on the way to the slide at the swimming pool, we shouldn’t add “how many times have I told you?” Our reminder is our parental guidance; children shouldn’t be reprimanded or made to feel bad for not remembering. Enabling autonomy doesn’t mean we do not assist and guide our children or even that we neglect our parental responsibility, on the contrary!
When we connect with our children, we acknowledge their abilities, interests and their individual level of development. We know where they can be trusted and where they require close guidance. Every child develops uniquely; while there are phases and times when certain abilities are honed, as the mother of my child I am the one who knows when trust is in order or when instruction or protection are called for. How we act and direct in familiar surroundings is also very different in unfamiliar places. There can be no “one way fits all”. There must be connection and communication to enable trust: we must trust our children to listen to us. This they will not do if we constantly restrain them and shut down their will and needs.
From the age of two years, my son was in the habit of waiting at roads, however, I was always in connection, reminding him to wait if he seemed distracted. We were a well-rehearsed team: he stopped with his Like-a-Bike a meter before the curb; I’d come a few seconds later, hold the hood of his jacket, cross the road holding him loosely and then give him a gentle push when we almost reached the other side. When he wasn’t on his bike he’d wait, I’d come up beside him, check all was clear and say “ok!” and he’d walk (or run) over. One day we were out with a person who didn’t trust or understand our practice. Marley waited at a road, but this person insisted on trying to take his hand, ignoring his efforts to get loose and his words that explained he knew what he was doing and didn’t need a hand.
Marley pulled himself free of the grip and the other person kept grabbing for him, driving him onto the road (it was a very small road with no cars at that moment, so not really alarming). I shouted for this person to stop it immediately, which he did. When I had caught up I explained Marley was waiting, that there was no danger until he had tried to force him to hold his hand.
When we seek to overpower instead of solely protect, whatever we are saying and doing is discarded and defied by our children. Overpowering somebody leaves no room for choice, communication or cooperation.
When we are in a situation where our children defy us and don’t listen to our instruction, overpowering and controlling them will hardly lead to a positive outcome. Running games make any dull walk fun. Holding hands, running a few steps, then stopping abruptly; turning around and around every now and again, making chicken steps and having fun while we play connects us and removes any opposition. Marley enjoyed running around me when we were waiting for the tram – I’d have to pass his hand to my other hand behind my back and at the front as he run. This was great fun. If he wanted to run off in town, I’d make a game out of it, telling him to run to a certain place, where he would wait, grinning. Or I’d run with him, if I deemed the surroundings unsafe. There is no limit to creativity!
Some children follow their impulses right out of the grocery store. When we know our children are prone to doing this, we must grasp their attention and curiosity, giving them tasks to do, allowing them to take part in what we are doing, making the activity worth their while. They will enjoy exploring their abilities, answering our questions, listening to what we are explaining and smelling the fruits we hold out.
I was once asked what my secret is, when I was shopping with my son. He pushed a little children’s cart around as he pleased, put things into it, sometimes followed me closely and sometimes went off by himself. He even had a short phase of heading to the checkout by himself and putting the food on the belt! I answered “I have no secret – we do the shopping together…actually he does what he likes.” And this is such a strong point: Children are entitled to do what they like…our mindset and actions defines if they like what they do! This attitude does not produce children who run off without a care in the world, take all they can get from people or test how much they can get away with, it allows equality concerning rights, needs, will and autonomy. It facilitates their needs in a playful way. If we restrain them, we create opposition instead of connection; we would be overpowering instead of communicating. Like this we live in partnership, bringing everyone joy and contentment.
Tips for connecting with your runners:
Facilitate the need instead of controlling it
Concentrate on autonomy and space to run before entering situations that call for close proximity
Keep your children interested in shops: let them push the shopping cart, give them tasks and items to choose, keep talking and asking questions
Allow them to run as far as they wish in safe places
Play ‘Running Games’ in tricky situations, have races, do dances; if all else fails, sling the child over your shoulder in a playful way and reevaluate your current endeavor – if your child simply cannot stay safe perhaps you can adjust the circumstances to make them more enjoyable for everyone?
Communicate rather than command
Question your fear: What is the realistically worst thing that could happen right now? Is your fear plausible?
Validate frustration and emotions that arise from being restricted in dangerous situations
Listen to your child, value his confidence and individual level of development
Young children require actions instead of words – be playful and make everything as fun as you possibly can instead of concentrating on the behavior
I invite you to take your liberty and join the revolution!