She Says… The Runaway

Owen has a new “game” he likes to play. Want to learn it?

Here’s how you play: When Mommy says you have to do anything (i.e. change your diaper, put on shoes, put on a coat, get in the car, get in your carseat, get in the stroller, wash your hands, etc.), you get a HUGE grin on your face and run the other direction. As fast as possible. Sometimes, for extra fun, you yell, “Getchoo, Mama!” while doing so. It adds insult to injury. Even better… run and HIDE. She’ll find you. It’ll be awesome.

I put game in quotes because he’s the only one playing. I AM NOT PLAYING.

The first time this happened, it was cute. Even the hiding. I pretended to look for him (even though I knew exactly where he was), found him and tickled him and threw him over my shoulder. Apparently unknowingly reinforcing just how fun this awesome game is.

But now I’d like for it to stop.

And the thing is, I really don’t know how to make it stop.

I don’t always have time for a little hide-and-seek-slash-tag game before heading out the door. Yesterday we were running late and even though I was prepared for him to run away, it made me snap. I lost my temper and yelled, “DO YOU HEAR ME, OWEN? YOU CANNOT RUN AWAY FROM MOMMY WHEN I SAY IT’S TIME TO GO.” Shouting into a toddler’s face has to be one of the most humiliating things in the world. He grinned and laughed and his eyes sparkled with the realization that he had gotten a rise out of me. It wasn’t the way I hoped to react, or the way I usually do, but something snapped and I lost my cool. After yelling for a second I realized that a) this isn’t the emotional reaction I would like to teach him and b) it wasn’t doing any good.

New tactic.

Later that afternoon I prepared myself for the inevitable mad dash and I tried a new tactic. Waiting. I stood right at the door with his coat in hand and said, calmly and sweetly, “Owen. Come here please. It’s time to go. This is not a game. Please come put your coat on.” I could hear him giggling while hiding. After what felt like an eternity of me standing, silently, I heard his little footsteps coming back. As soon as he saw me waiting for him, he spun on his heels and ran away again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

After faking me out three times, he came over and happily put his coat on. I praised him for good listening and told him how happy it made me. Sounds good, right? But let’s be honest… I don’t always have 5 minutes to sit around and wait for him to come to me. Of course I want him to learn how to make the decision to come to me on his own, and while it works ok at home, I can’t let him dash away from me, out of my sight, in lots of situations.

For instance, he has started to play this game when we’re in our driveway and I say it’s time to get in the car too. He turns and runs away. And although we have a small front yard, and he doesn’t usually head for the street, he could. And that scares me. Since I know the game by now, I usually grab onto his hood or coat before saying, “Ok, let’s get in the car!” and then end up dragging/carrying him to the car. But again, that’s not really teaching him to not run away. It’s just teaching him that sometimes I am faster than he is. I want him to be in charge of his own body.

Any suggestions for curbing this behavior? Do you have a runaway? How do you “discipline” your toddler under 2 years old? We have not really instituted time outs or formal punishments. And I don’t really consider this something that need a time out; frankly, I think he’s just being 19 months old. He’s testing limits and seeing what happens and I totally get that. Behind my stern face, I think it’s kind of hilarious. But it does make getting out the door a bit of a challenge…

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9 responses to “She Says… The Runaway

  1. Run him down and tackle him a few times. That will probably change his mind. Make sure there is a little blood to remind him later about consequences.

    Man, I should write a parenting book.

  2. So, here’s what I would do, take it or leave it.

    First, zero reaction. You’ve already got a start on this, and you know that even getting “mad” at a toddler is still reinforcing the behavior because it gets a reaction. So no reaction, happy sad mad or otherwise, is a great start. Really, as little talking as you can possibly imagine. Bite your lip if that’s what it takes to keep your mouth shut, but no extra explanations.

    Second, stop/prevent the actual run as quickly as possible. If that means physically snatching him up, do it. Again, calmly. Zero reaction. It’s not anger, it’s not fear, it’s not laughing. It’s simply “you may not run, and if you do, I will pick you up and put you where I asked you to go.” Or, as the weather gets warm and he attempts to bolt from the playground? Snatch him up and bring him back in. If it happens a second time, snatch him up and put him in the car and leave. (AND DON’T TALK. The explanations are like the teacher in Peanuts – at this age they mostly go in one ear and out the other. It’s the immediate behavioral consequence that will send the clearest message.)

    You’re right that he’s not exactly ready for formal discipline/time-outs/etc. – he’s still a bit young. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reinforce or discourage different behaviors. It just has to be an IMMEDIATE response/consequence. Straight-up behavioral conditioning (you took Psych in college, right?).

    I know that sounds a little cold or harsh. It’s not meant to be mean or even especially punitive. It’s just sending the clearest possible message about behavior X = consequence Y.

    As you gear up for age 2, I HIGHLY recommend reading 123 Magic. We used it starting right at that age. Conceptually simple, not always so simple to implement (especially the stay calm/zero reaction bit), but clear and effective.

    One last thing: when I would say something about my kids being tricky at age 2, lots of people would give me the old “oh, wait until they’re THREE!!!” But here’s my take on that: you reap at 3 what you sow at 2. People I knew who put off discipline stuff at age 2, or made the excuses of the undesired behavior being “developmentally appropriate,” had their asses handed to them at 3 and 4. Those who set up boundaries and a clearer, more consistent approach to behavior/discipline early on had it a lot easier. Three is smarter than Two, so if they realized they could get away with stuff at Two, then they’ll find a lot more weak spots in the fence at Three.

    OK, sorry, random tangent. I’ll get off my disciplinary soapbox now. I don’t mean to imply that you aren’t rocking out right now. I think you’re doing awesome. This is just how I get sometimes. 🙂

  3. Oh man, scratch everything I just wrote. I like Kara’s advice. 🙂

  4. Hahaha Kara’s response made me laugh so much!

    Janie does this too… (18 1/2 months)… a lot! I have no advice for you, just empathy 😦 We don’t have a solution for it either, except we know that yelling doesn’t work, just as you’ve found out. She thinks it’s hilarious. We do use time-out but we try and save that for hitting (because she has also started doing THAT as well.) The only thing that SOMETIMES works is to talk to her like a little adult. I’ll bend down in front of her and very calmly say, “Janie, Mommy is going to put your coat on now, and I need your help. Are you ready?” She usually says, “YES!” and puts it right on. (But not always – argh!) We also taught her the “coat trick” – you can probably google it – and that helps sometimes as well.

    Good luck, lady!!! Let me know what works so I can try it too 🙂

  5. My now 3-year-old has been playing that game for a long time now. And not just when we’re trying to leave the house (although he’s usually running away from putting on his shoes or jacket). Some of the scariest parenting moments I’ve ever had involved me at 9 months pregnant chasing my 2-year-old down through a crowded parking lot while my 5-year-old stood next to the car, all alone. Or me at 9 months pregnant chasing him through the supermarket and out the automatic doors into the parking lot. We were very diligent about teaching them not to run into the street or parking lot, so they are almost always careful not to, but the fun of the “Run Away from Mom Game” seems to eclipse the normal rules in a 2-year-old’s brain. We’ve had success with 1-2-3 Magic as well, and it is extremely difficult to remain calm when the “game” becomes a potentially dangerous situation. But the calm consistency does work (it is straight-up Pavlovian conditioning, as someone above mentioned) eventually. And as they get older there are all kinds of new limits to test!

  6. Like everything else, it is a stage. An annoying one at that, but it will be over eventually. In the meantime I wouldn’t even call him over when you are ready to leave. I would bring his coat to wherever he is in the house, start putting it on, and then tell him calmly, “It’s time to go”. My son went through something similiar, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to carry him to the car without his shoes on because I didn’t have the time/energy to wrestle him to the ground. The fact of the matter is that he eventually realized that what I say goes, whether he’s interested in doing it or not. It does become easier as they get older and can understand consequences. But my son is now nearing 4 and I can tell you that he continues to test his limits, as I’m sure he will for many years to come. The difference now is that he does understand the consequences for certain behaviors and that makes disciplining him a bit easier. Good luck! Each stage has it’s joys and challenges, but overall it’s so much fun isn’t it?

  7. Glad I’m not the only one who has a kid that plays that “game”. Sigh…Loved the tips so far—I am sooo getting that magic 123 book–Lord knows I need it!

  8. Cameron just started doing this as well – inclusive of when I pick him up at day care and he wants me to run around chasing him like Mama fool to get his coat and hat on 🙂

    I’m looking into this 123 Magic book. I was also wondering when it was going to be appropriate/effective to start the discipline/consequence procedures. He’s a really sweet little boy with very little issues to this point (other then his ungodly internal wakeup clock, of course :-D), but you are right, even though it’s such a “fun game” to play chase with Mama, there are times when it can become really dangerous.

    On a side but related note. I’m starting to understand why some parents find it necessary to latch up with the “backpacks” (aka leashes) in certain situations. Please scoff at them and I never was really for or against those, but I bet if I was 9 mths pregnant like Julie was, I think I might be inclined to just do what you have to do to keep him safe in the circumstances while you’re working on curbing the behaviour. Safety is truly the #1 priority, right? If it got to that point that I was truly afraid I couldn’t keep him safe from darting in an unsafe situation, I’d do it for that situation for sure.

  9. Thank you so much!!! These are wonderful comments and great suggestions. I will definitely be getting “1, 2, 3, Magic” and we’ll go from there. In the meantime I’m trying to give him the opportunity to follow directions, and if it doesn’t happen, just moving him to where I need him to be without emotion. So glad to be figuring this out *before* bigger issues than not putting his coat on arise.

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