Dear Mr. Dad: My 2 ½ year old son has recently started running away from me whenever we leave the house. Sometimes I have to sprint to catch him. It’s really frightening and I’m afraid to look away even for a second. Why is he doing this and how can I stop him?

A: First, let’s keep in mind that your son isn’t running away to rebel, and he probably isn’t trying to scare you. It’s actually a normal developmental phase for toddlers. Aside from having a marvelous time exploring the world, running, being chased, and getting caught makes them feel secure. That said, since dashing off in a parking lot or crowded place can be a serious safety issue, and your son needs to learn to stop doing it (or at least cut back. Here are a few strategies:

  • Strap him in. The simplest solution is to keep him confined to his stroller. But that can make both of you miserable. However, you can use the stroller as a training tool. Bring it along a few times and if your son tries to run away, put him in the stroller—and tell him why. If he doesn’t like the stroller, after a few rides, he’ll learn to stay close.
  • Hold on tight. If your son doesn’t want to hold your hand directly (after all, that might interfere with his independence), have him hold one side of his favorite toy and you hold the other. If he lets go, let the toy drop and he’ll probably stop to pick it up, giving you the opportunity to remind him to stay close.
  • Have fun. Children often run off because they’re bored and looking for some entertainment. Try to engage your son by talking, asking him questions, telling stories, singing a song, or something else that holds his attention.
  • Consequences. Of course, since running away is so much fun, it might be hard to convince him to stop. You need immediate consequences (telling him no ice cream after dinner is too abstract for a toddler to handle). You might try threatening, “If you run away we’ll go home,” but that could be exactly what he wants. Make sure the consequences fit the crime and that you use them consistently.
  • Hop in the sack. If your back can handle it, try a back-pack child carrier, which may give your son a fun vantage point. Another option is a toddler harness. These are pretty controversial because it looks like a leash, and some people (including me) feel that it humiliates the child. But others say it gives toddlers some independence while still keeping them safe.
  • Let him run. If you know you’re going to be running errands all afternoon, build in some stops at a park or playground, where your son can run freely. And bring your running gear. Have him practice running back to you when called, or play a game of “red light, green light” that teaches him to listen to your commands.
  • Be positive. When he doesn’t run away, praise his specific behavior, such as “you did a great job staying close to me today!” And encourage him to keep up the good conduct.

No matter how good your son gets at staying close or coming when called, you still need to watch him at all times. It’s your responsibility to keep him safe, and that includes keeping him close. And remember, besides running, toddlers also like to hide, which can quickly turn into an already scary department-store disappearance into a real panic.