My toddler constantly runs away and no, that doesn’t make me a bad parent

The other day, my mother made a confession after keeping a secret from me for several weeks. “We lost Tener the other day,” she revealed.

“I was scared to tell you.” My 3-year-old son had been lost in Kohl’s department store for about five minutes, she told me. With the help of security, they eventually found him camped out in a clothing rack, smiling his head off at his clever stunt. (That was before my mother scolded him, and rightly so.) It was only a few minutes, but to my mother, it felt like much longer. She was terrified and I understood her fear, but it’s honestly one that I’ve gotten used to.

When she told me that she and my stepfather placed my son down for a moment and he was instantly out of sight, I knew they weren’t exaggerating. I’ve watched him bolt down aisles at the grocery store faster than I can yell, “Don’t! Stop! Get back here!” dozens of times. I’ve found myself throwing items on the floor at Target and sprinting after him. I’ve been the victim of plenty of stares and whispers. I’ve heard, “Geez, keep a better eye on your kid lady.” This is why I usually demand that he sit in the cart, but it doesn’t last long before he’s unbuckling himself and trying to fling his body over the edge.

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The library, with its lack of carts, weaving rows of books and dark corners for hiding, is the absolute worst. The last time we were there, he darted behind a shelf and hid. When I found him, I wasn’t in the mood for games. I was so angry and tired of the relentless routine, that I picked him up and said sternly, “You may not run away from Mommy. No library today! We’re going home now.” He sobbed the whole way.

To be clear, my mother, who is a bit on the overprotective side, is just about the last person you’d expect to misplace a child (which makes me feel slightly better about losing him, well, all the time). She was rattled and guilt-ridden from the incident and a little afraid that I would be upset with her or even yell for letting him get away. But while of course I wasn’t happy to hear the news, I was far from angry. I instantly knew that it wasn’t her fault. To my mother’s relief, I didn’t bat an eyelash. Instead, I laughed, “Mom, I lose him, like, once a week. Don’t stress about it. I’m sorry he scared you,” I said.

The truth is, I’ve got a runner. Despite my best efforts, he sometimes slips out of my grasp no matter what I do. It’s usually only for a minute or two before I track him down, panting (and maybe swearing a little). I’ve tried scolding him. I’ve sat him down and lectured. I’ve told him how dangerous it is to run away. I’ve taken away privileges. I’ve even hid while silently following him to make him think he’s really lost. I’ll put a little fear in him, I thought. That’ll teach him to stay by me!

But that didn’t work either. None of it has changed his sneaky habit of wiggling away from me. At this point, he is just not at the level of understanding that his unruly behavior is scary and potentially dangerous. He doesn’t get it quite yet. So all I can do is keep reiterating. Keep my stance clear and my eyes open. But in all honesty, it makes me understand why some people leash their children. Though I haven’t quite gotten to that point of desperation myself, I completely understand it.

While my daughter always had a kind of natural, healthy fear that kept her close to me, my son is quite different. I used to let my daughter play in our gated backyard alone, knowing she’d never go far. But my son would crack that gate right open and run a mile. He’d play with fire if he could. He’d eat something out of the garbage (and has). He’d climb into the washing machine. He’d seek out any danger he could find and laugh in its face until he hurts himself.

I understand now that children have all kinds of different temperaments that sometimes makes them behave in borderline dangerous ways. I didn’t totally get that before I had a kid who loved to run away, but now I understand. Though I don’t claim to be Parent of the Year, I don’t believe it’s crappy parenting that makes one kid behave like a maniac in the grocery store, and another calmly walk next to their parent. Some of it is just ingrained.

Having a runner isn’t fun. It makes taking my son just about anywhere a huge challenge because he hates being closed in. He just wants to move. This is why after most trips out and about, I am relieved to strap him back in his car seat (which so far, he can’t unbuckle). As we pull away from wherever we’ve been, I whisper to myself, “This too shall pass. This too shall pass. Please, please, let this freaking stage pass!”

But like most things, I have faith that it will. In the meantime, I’m just trying to hold on for dear life — or at the very least, only take him places where there are multiple security guards at the door.

It’s more than likely that my runner will get lost again. I can only hope that this routine gets old soon enough. But next time you hear a lost child announcement at the department store, try to be compassionate instead of thinking, “What horrible, negligent parents!” Some of us have runners and we’re just trying like hell to keep up. I know I am. And believe me, I’m doing my best.

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