An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
How do I get my toddler to cooperate in a dangerous situation? My two-and-a-half-year-old son likes to run outside and will not stop when I tell him to, which makes me livid, especially when there are cars around! Threatening with a time-out seems to be the only thing that will get his attention. Instead of that, what can I do right in that moment, and what can I do to keep him safe in the future?
Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
In order to learn safely, toddlers need clear boundaries, code words and phrases, information, and an emotional context for behavior.
Children need to run, so it is important that toddlers have extremely clear boundaries about where and when, and they will need frequent reminders until they get it. I like to use “we” language. I say, “We can run at the park when Mom says it is safe. We do not run near the street. When cars are around, find a hand to hold.” Getting eye contact and getting on the child’s level are important. Be very clear about what you need and use positive reminders instead of threats. “I need you to hold my hand now. You will get to run at the park after lunch.”
A two-and-a-half-year-old child can understand that danger exists that we have strong emotions around danger. Since we want to have children who are empathetic, we can pay close attention in challenging situations to what emotions are at play, and we can even exaggerate our own emotions (like fear of our child getting hurt and how sad we would feel). We can get down on the child’s level each time they run off near cars and explain that cars are dangerous and might hurt us, and we can point to our pained face and let the child know that we are scared when they run and would feel really sad if they got hurt. We can then ask the child to remember a time when they got hurt and were crying and a parent was sad with them.
Having a clear and very consistent way to manage dangerous running situations is important. We can teach a child that whenever we are at a curb we put our hands out in front of us and say, “Stop.” We can practice this while walking on quiet streets. Letting the toddler take on a little bit of this responsibility for behavior can go a long way in gaining cooperation. Instead of calling the child by his name or yelling, “No!,” we can say, “Stop.” only for dangerous situations where we need the body to halt.
It is so scary to have a toddler run away from us when there are cars around. However, all toddlers need to run, and all toddlers love chase games. We can’t really blame them for not being able to distinguish between a safe situation and an unsafe one.
The best approach is two-fold: First, play chase games with him in a safe place to meet his legitimate need for chase games and also to keep this from becoming a power struggle. Second, be very clear about stating and enforcing your limit of his holding your hand if there are cars around.
First, give him some power by finding a safe, enclosed place and playing chase games with him. Let him run away while you chase him. Tell him he is just too fast for you, while you chase him all around. Finally, scoop him up for a kiss and a hug. If you play these games with him in a safe place, he is less likely to give you a hard time by running away from you when you tell him not to.
Then say, “You love that chase game, don’t you? We can play that any time you want in a safe place. But we can never play that game when there are cars around. So before you run away from me, I need you to always ask me, ‘Can I run now?’ I will always try to find a safe place for you to run. But if I say, ‘No, it isn’t safe!’ then I need you to stay with me and hold my hand, okay?”
Second, in that moment, you set a clear limit and enforce it. You always warn him. “Look…cars! They are dangerous. Time to hold my hand. I need you to stay close to me. Can you stay close? Good, because we can only stay here if you can hold my hand.”
If he does try to let go of your hand, you simply end the outing. Go back to the car. Since the threat of a time-out works, the threat of the end of the outing will work also. You won’t have to do this more than once.
How is this different from punishing him with a time-out? You aren’t punishing. You are setting a clear, kind limit. You aren’t blaming him. You stay compassionate and empathetic. “I know, you don’t want to go home. I’m so sorry, Sweetie. I know it’s hard to leave. But it was too hard for you to hold my hand today and it’s my job to keep you safe. We’ll try again tomorrow. You’re getting bigger every day and it will get easier for you to hold my hand and stay with me when you need to.”
Gentle parenting doesn’t mean we don’t set limits. We have to set them all the time. Gentle parenting means we set those limits with empathy and without blame or punishment.
I hope that’s helpful!
It’s easy to tell from your question that being gentle with your toddler is important to you, and that is already the first step in actually being gentle. It’s also not the first time I’ve seen this question come up, so take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in dealing with finding the balance between keeping your child safe and being the parent you want to be.
The best advice I have to offer you is to put strategies in place that allow you to be in a position to anticipate and meet his needs. By this I mean things like having your hands free when you’re leaving the house so that you are able to scoop him up, or heading out with him in your arms, in his sling, or in the stroller.
The reason he responds when you threaten is probably because he understands the threat, but he doesn’t understand the danger that leads to the threat. Depending on his personality and extent of understanding, it may help to get down on his level, show him the cars, and explain that they’ll hurt him.
My oldest was running around by nine months of age, well before she could really comprehend danger. While I was generally able to keep her in my arms, I did find that a backpack with a parent handle made a huge difference to us. I can hear gasps around the world at the thought, but it really worked in our situation, and she was able to roam freely in a wide circle around me, but not able to get out of arms reach, which was especially valuable when I became pregnant again.
I’ve always been very child-led in my parenting, and I would have discontinued use of the reigns if she was upset by them, but she much preferred them to being restrained or not being allowed to run around.
Another thing we did was play the hands game: as soon as she was in reach of the car, she had to place two hands on the car and wasn’t allowed to let go. Then I’d quickly lock or unlock the car and get her inside.
When the baby came along, I would pop my oldest in the car seat, go around and buckle in the youngest, then head back and buckle in the oldest. It’s tedious, but it was the only strategy that worked to prevent her from running into the road.
With a very young and independent child, I found it easier to adjust my expectations and cater to her anticipated moves, rather than to try to negotiate, reason, or explain while expecting comprehension. By all means, keep explaining, because one day it will suddenly click for him, but until that time, habits, routines, games, and physical hands-on guidance is probably my best advice!