Meet West. He is two years old. He has the hair of a Greek god with the adventurous spirit and gleaming smile to match. He converses with anyone who will listen, has deeply empathetic connections with others, is the youngest of our hearty three-boy superhero squad, is as tall as a four year old, and happens to be the runningest runner who ever lived.
He has never been restrained in a container against his will (strapped into a stroller). He has never been walked on a leash like a dog. He has never been forced to hold my hand while we cross a street (much to my mother’s chagrin).
So how do we homeschool out in the world? How do I work with him under wing? How do we survive and thrive in the social current?
Having appropriate expectations is the first hurdle in creating a life with a toddler runner that maintains everyone’s sanity and happiness. No amount of discipline will tame the adventurous spirit of your toddler (and you shouldn’t want to). Neither threats nor bribery will temper the physical drive that is aimed at scaling the Mt. Kilimanjaro of his small world. Wishing your child to be a different soul is an utter waste of your valuable energy (“All of my friend’s little ones just play quietly next to them while they sit and talk. Why can’t my child be like that?”). Attempting to will your child into a different developmental state than he is presently is laughably foolhardy. Embrace the child you birthed for exactly who he is today. Only from this place can you parent successfully. You could no more force maturity than you could force him to be taller. Know your child and set him up for success. If your expectations are not appropriate for your child, then he is not the source of the problem.
It’s all about creating approved ways for him to get that need met in public settings. What is your child’s specific need? How can you incorporate that need into not just each day, but every activity? Giving him time and space to run free to his heart’s content in nature is vital but will not eliminate the need for adventurous and vigorous exploration at every stop after the park.
If we are in a store and West wants to “run away,” he comes to me and says, “Mommy, run that way!” I say, “You want to run that way? Okay, let’s go! Then we run TOGETHER. You’ll notice I put the phrase “run away” in quotes because while that is how most describe it, they don’t actually want to run away from you, they just want to run. So don’t experience it as a rejection. They would love to have you copilot their adventure. They just don’t want a warden.
The minute he became independently mobile, it was apparent that he had a fiery passion for high-speed exploration and adventure. He would start to take off and I would put myself between him and his desired escape route, down on his level, and say, “You want to run that way? Okay, we can run TOGETHER.” Because they don’t really want to escape, they just want to run. So you have to give them a way to run and explore WITH you.
While I never strap my child down into a container against his will, we do sometimes use a stroller. My little one’s legs are small and despite loving the chase, he is simply unable to comfortably walk the distances us longer-legged folks are able to traverse. He loves exploring the world from his pouch (our Toddler Tula) but he also likes using the stroller. It’s a great place to eat some snacks on the go or play with toys he kept dropping. The key with the stroller is that it is HIS choice to sit in it or not. Whenever he wants to get out, he says, “Mommy, I get out” (so his feet don’t get run over) and I stop long enough for him to hop out and we continue on our merry way. If you force your child in a stroller against their will, they will associate that place with disempowerment and a humiliating loss of autonomy and avoid it like the plague. One note with strollers and runners is that it is much more difficult to run with your child if you have to push the stroller. It puts a big, cumbersome, hand-requiring object between you and your little runner so I only bring it along sparingly when the needs of our family of five tip the scales toward its benefit. For us, I want to say that ends up being about twice a month. Rule of thumb: If your child is able to get in and out of the stroller on their own, they are allowed to get in and out of the stroller on their own.
Since I find a way to say yes the vast majority of the time, the infrequent times I am unable to meet his need in the moment, waiting is doable for him because he TRUSTS me. He knows that if there was any way to make it safe in that moment I would.
If we are about to check out at the grocery store, I offer to run to the line together, reminding him that once we get in line, we can’t run until we get our receipt. If once in the line he wants to take off running, I would say, “I have to pay the lady for these groceries, then we can run together to the door. Do you want to help me push the buttons?” (Engaging him in what is happening.) Then I give him status updates so he knows I didn’t forget. “Now we just have to wait for the receipt, and then we can run to the door.” (Sequencing.)
Every single time we get to a door in a public place, we stop and check in with each other. This is key with a runner. It is ingrained in him that whenever he gets to a door, he stops and we check to make sure we are all together. “Here’s a door. Stop! We’re all together? Let’s go!” It should be fun and playful (not at all negative).
Street crossing seems to be the daily event most associated with parents throwing their parenting philosophies and ideals out the window. It’s a time when parents tend to abandon respectful parenting based on gentle guidance and learning in favor of physical boundaries imposed against a chid’s will. After all, “What good is a trusting relationship if my child is dead!?”
The problem is, strategies based on authority imposed restraint don’t teach your child how to make safe choices. They make you the enemy and leave your child feeling powerless with a strong drive to reclaim that autonomy through rebellion (translation: running for the street anytime you’re not looking).
If your child runs to the street, instead of a spanking (which will teach your child to fear YOU, not the street) or putting your child on a leash, say, “Danger! When you run into the street, I am scared because you could get smashed by a car (pointing at cars) (I statement) (look scared). Danger (pointing at the street)!”
Then, and here’s the most impactful part, “Let’s try again” (replay). Take him back to the point at which you were both together, and walk through the situation again, making the safe choice. Run toward the street, then stop abruptly at the curb. Point to the curb and say, “Stop!” (make it fun). The replay is a wonderful parenting tool that leaves your child feeling empowered, respected, and with a muscle memory of the safe choice.
If you feel a consequence is necessary, you can continue with a logical consequence, “We now have to spend the rest of the afternoon inside the house because I cannot trust that you will make safe choices outside and I must keep you safe.”
Now every single time you are about to step off a curb, you both stop abruptly and say with a smile, “Stop.” Doing that routine will make it second nature for him to stop at the curb.
As your child gets older, you can expand it to, “Stop. Look left. Look right. No cars.” to equip your child with the skills to navigate the world more independently. My two year old’s “guys” even say this when they cross their play streets.
Responding to a child running to the street in this way will teach this child that running into the street is scary, not safe, and will not be allowed, in a way that enhances your bond, respects your child as a human being, and empowers him to make better choices in the future.
West has learned to navigate appropriateness and safety in public places because I explain things to him and find a way to say yes. If his desired choice is not safe, I explain why and we work together to find a safe way to get his need met. This is far more valuable than obeying commands because you won’t always be streaming orders (nor would you want to). I want to equip my children to be independently successful and buckles and commands will not accomplish that goal.
“I’m feeling nervous about you climbing so high up this very big rock. What might happen?”
“I might fall down get bonk on my head.”
“Oh, ya, that would hurt. What could we do to make it safer?”
“Hold my hand?”
“Okay, let’s try it. How does that feel?”
“No, I need my hand to climb.”
“Okay, what else could we try?”
“You stand right here, so close and catch me if I fall.”
“Okay, good plan!”
We were at Ikea the other day and it was very busy but after a while he asked to get down from his perch on my chest in the pouch. I told him that I was concerned that it was very busy with lots of people and I know his legs like to run. I asked him what we could do to keep him safe from all the people bumping and squishing and from getting lost. He suggested he could try to stay right next to me and if it was still too dangerous, he could stand in the big part of the cart downstairs. So we ran together, we sat in chairs, we opened cupboards, and then he stood in the big part of the shopping cart.
Skip ahead a few days inside Target. It was completely empty, so he asked if he could run around the immediate area. I told him I would stand right in the middle and he could run around the area so long as we could see each other. Every few minutes I would say, “I see you!” and he would respond in kind.
One frequently used marker of freedom for us is aisles. West asks if he can run to the end of the aisle and back. If the aisle is empty I say yes but am intentional in making sure that when he gets to the end of the aisle, I am engaging with him so he is enticed to run back, as the lure of adventure at the end of the aisle is great.
Red Light, Green Light is a very good game for toddler runners to play. It helps them to practice transitioning quickly from running mode to stopping abruptly. However, a common mistake parents make is hijacking the game as a control device. “I said red light Thomas! Stop!” Like I said, it’s a game you play together that provides good practice. Its value is in utilizing it as such. Don’t cry wolf. One key feature of playing this game is that your child gets to spend just as much time as you calling the lights.
On the flip side, be careful with Hide and Seek. When you do play this game, be clear on the context that allows for safety. Hide and Seek is a great game to play at home. It can be a fun game to play outdoors but in our family, we have the rule that one grown up has to see you. Meaning, this is a game that can only be played outside the house with two grown ups – one to find and one to supervise the hiders. So West would never run off and hide in a public place because he doesn’t think that’s how Hide and Seek is played.
You’ll notice a theme of togetherness. Being connected with your child, in tune with his needs, engaged with his interest, and respecting him as an autonomous human being is what it’s all about. Get behind his eyes, see what it is he needs and find a way to meet that. “That other room might be adventurous to explore. Do you want to check it out? Let’s go TOGETHER.”
Making the conscious choice to prioritize your child above social conventions is necessary with a runner. The anxiety from the pressure to socially conform can feel overwhelming. If you have just read 10 books on the library floor with your child when her running suddenly flares, you can try, “You want to run and leave the library. Let’s put these away and run together!” But sometimes, while at such a young age, they are just not capable of giving you what you want. Perhaps you missed her earlier cues of restlessness and now she is too far-gone. Worse comes to worse, (“I can’t wait Mommy. I just have to run!”) leave the books on the floor and move on together. As she matures, she will be able to wait longer and longer. You can pay it forward by picking up and putting away books you see on the library floor the next time you visit the library with your child. It’s a good lesson for you to be able to walk away from an activity you are engrossed in before you are ready and feel a sense of completion because we expect our littles to do it all the time. The world won’t end.
Sometimes the parenting baggage of strangers is unloaded onto you and your child. It comes in the form of “That’s not safe. He is going to get hurt.” but what you should hear behind those words is, “Seeing your child’s freedom brings up feelings from my childhood that I am unable to comfortably handle.” There is a surface layer of genuine concern for your child, so if the person expresses their feelings respectfully, I temper my signature snark in favor of a teaching moment with my child. The other day I was eating lunch with West in the food court at the mall and he was climbing all over me and the booth we occupied. (At one point I did say to him, “I notice there is a person sitting here in this booth behind us so I would like you to be careful not to encroach on her space, okay?” He took note and adjusted his play.) An older woman sitting at the table next to us was repeatedly gasping and staring. I ignored her and enjoyed my lunch date with my son until she leaned over and said, “He’s going to hit his head on the corner of this table.” I turned to West and said, “This lady is afraid you are going to hit your head on the corner of this table. What do you think?” He looked at the table, looked at the lady, and said, “No, I’m okay.” I smiled at her and went back to my lunch. The lady couldn’t help but smile back at him and nervously went back to her own lunch.
This might sound intimidating. It takes more effort up front but it actually requires much less energy in the long run. Checking in with each other as you leave places is really not much effort comparatively. Think about all the energy you expend dealing with a toddler who is constantly running away. You might feel like you are losing a battle and begin isolating yourself from the public world. You avoid outings like the plague and resign yourself to house arrest until your child reaches double digits. You know what? That’s bullshit. Because the world belongs to all of us – children included. Babies can cry. Nurslings can eat. And runners can run. I have found the key to social acceptance is really happiness. If you are stressed, people are annoyed. If you and your child are happy and smiling, people around can’t help but smile and catch some of the contagious joy.
I love connecting with my Sage Parents out in the world. If you see me out and about, come say, “Hello.” Just know that it will be at high speed for the next few years. And I am completely at peace with that. Embrace the fun while it lasts. You’ll have the rest of your life to be boring and slow.
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