As a Circle of Moms member named Yolanda shares, the scariest thing in the world is seeing your child run straight into potential danger: "My son bolted from the store and started to run into the parking lot!"
Even so, it's no fun to walk with your child when you're spending the entire time correcting her for running ahead. You know she's too young to perceive real danger so you warn her constantly, but she feels like she's being controlled and acts like a horse chomping at the bit to get away.
Two Ways to Teach Safe Walking
Teaching your child the two walks described below not only helps her learn to be safe around cars or out in nature, but also helps her develop self-control and responsibility. Both walks require an explanation and several rounds of practice before using. A great place to practice is in an empty parking lot or an unused road.
1. The "I Can Touch You" Walk
Once fully understood, the "I can touch you" walk is used near cars, on sidewalks or in the mall. The goal is to keep your child close enough to you so you can easily reach out and grab her if she walks ahead. Most children feel like a big kid when they're able to walk without holding a parent's hand, so that becomes the prize and the natural consequence of mastering this walk.
Details: Explain to your child that she's welcome to walk without holding your hand when she stays close enough to you that you can easily reach out and tap her shoulder. However, if she runs ahead or goes near danger, then she'll have to hold your hand for a count of 20, and then try again. Holding a parent's hand for the count of 20, and then getting to try again, is an age-appropriate physical representation of how to practice self-control.
Arm's Length: The key to being successful here is to make sure your child is no further away from you than an outstretched arm. That way you can effortlessly reach out and grab her if need be.
Positive Reinforcement: Make sure to acknowledge her success several times during the walk by tapping her on the shoulder, saying, "Look, I can touch your shoulder. Thanks for walking this way."
2. The "Free" Walk
A "free" walk is used when walking on trails, at parks or beaches, or any place where there are no cars. Place a hat or scarf on a tree branch ahead to show your child the boundary. You'll do this for each leg of the walk. "Free" walks introduce a child to following the rules. Here as well, the prize is not holding a parent's hand, and the natural consequence is holding a parent's hand.
Be prepared: In order to show her that you mean business and that you're prepared to go get her the very first time she goes past the boundary you created. Hold her hand and bring her back to where the family is walking. Do not begin counting until you've made it back to the rest of the family. Continue holding her hand and count to 20. When you reach 20, use an excited voice and say, "Now you can try again. You can walk without holding my hand as long as you stop at the tree where my hat is." You may have to do this repeatedly to drive the point home that you're serious.
When a child is taught what self-control is by experiencing a natural consequence, she will understand how to use it in other situations. And when a child is given clear boundaries and is entrusted with being responsible for her own safety, she tends to stay closer than you would think.
Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills e-class. Go to proactiveparenting.net to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.