Q. My nearly three year old thinks it's fun to run away from me on the street or in crowded places. I'm not a fan of the toddler harnesses but I'm afraid I'll lose him or he'll get hurt. How can I teach him to stay close without resorting to a toddler harness?
A: Running away in crowds or busy streets is dangerous. The problem is when you chase, a 3 yr old thinks it’s a great game even though it is clear by your mood that you are stressed and anxious. I class running away in two distinct categories, one is general – he runs away from you or refuses to co-operate and hold your hand everywhere. The second is situation specific – he runs away in certain places eg. Streets, crowded places where they often know you become more anxious and it is harder to control. Both of these situations involve different strategies.
If you are needing to work on just running away, I have written previously about teaching hand holding in a secure place ie. a fenced park, backyard etc using praise. You can also teach holding onto a pram as well. You need to work on this before giving freedom in places that involve danger such as busy roads etc.
Now for specific situations – as you have written about, busy places – the main point here is that your son needs to be under your control, if he is not then it is too high risk and he sense your vunerability and thinks its fun. So when going out be sure to take a stroller with you. From now on, explain that he needs to stay beside you and hold your hand, shopping trolley etc or he can sit in the stroller. These are the only two options.
Start out with him in the stroller, so out of the car and into the stroller, buckled in, he stays like this the whole trip. Show him will dolls at home the shopping behaviour you expect, role play getting out of the car etc, sitting in the stroller or walking holding hands. (a box will do as a stroller). Next time you go out, on the way talk to him about what you expect and want him to do, not the negative. Again place him in the stroller, a few minutes before the end, ask him if he would like to try walking with you, holding hands or the stroller. If he looks like he is about to run or refuses to follow your instructions place him immediately back into the stroller. No explaination, just focus on the job at hand. Once in the stoller repeat the two choices. He stays in the stroller until you finish. No second chance today.
The next time do the same strategy, once he is walking and following instructions, start to slowly expand the time he is walking rather than sitting. Never be conned to give a second chance on the shopping trip or this will become the loop hole. Follow all success with lots of praise, smiles, attention, talk about it at other times about great shopping behaviour and how well he is doing. Before too long he will be successful. I would still caution to keep taking the stroller even if you don’t use it, for another couple of weeks so that if they is any retesting of the old behaviour you can gain control of the situation immediately.