How Do I Keep My 5 Year Old from Walking Too Far Away in Public?

Updated on May 18, 2009
Y.D. asks from Claremont, CA
15 answers

My five year old walks way too far away from me at stores and other public places. She generally doesn't want to hold hands while walking down a sidewalk and isn't very mindful of driveways. We have been talking to her about driveway and street-crossing safety for years. She is excited and energetic most of the time so forgets to be careful. Obviously my main concern is for her safety, but in the case of stores, she has jumped in front of many an elderly person. I need advice on this and am extremely concerned because she is starting Kindergarden in the Fall. The strange part is that when at home, she doesn't leave my side and follows me everywhere. How can I get through to her that safety is a real issue???

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So What Happened?

Thank you everyone for the responses. My husband and I have read through them all and have found them very helpful. Also, thank you for the "Mommy I'm Here" idea.

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answers from Los Angeles on

My son was a wanderer when he was very little-2 to 3. I explained to him one day in a very serious voice that he is a very cute child and there are not nice people that would love to take him to their family and the he could not be with us any more. I asked if he wanted another family, because I could arrange it.
Then I also set up the rule that he is not allowed to walk on the blacktop (street, parking lot, driveway, etc) unless he is holding my hand. I made it a little fun by telling him he was a baby duck and I was the mommy duck. For a few days we waddled around quacking through parking lots. He got the idea and at 9 still holds my hand but now he drops it as soon as we're on the sidewalk.
If he ever wandered away I told him that I couldn't trust him so he had to sit in the baby seat of the shopping cart with the seat belt on and I put him in there or take a stroller he could be strapped in. A few times of this and he got the idea.
The fake scare works best a day or two after you have a clear talk about why it's important to stay with mom. That way it's fresh enough in her mind to make the connection not just "mom abandoned me." She'll get that she was the one that took off not the other way around.
Good Luck.

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answers from San Diego on

While safety may be the REASON that you need her closer to you, the actual ISSUE imho, is that she's not listening to you at all.

With my son, he didn't get a choice from the beginning, so we won't use him as an example. One of my closest friend's child, who I watched for 6 months last year (at 5), would NOT hold hands to cross the street, stay near us in stores, ran ahead and hid, ran ahead and RAN... oh my GAWD, talk about a HUGE pain in the keister. He would literally run out into the street into oncoming traffic, or through a store knocking things over as he went.

So I MADE him. He would hit, spit, yell, cry, and throw a fit... but he either held hands or was carried. And then we went home, for throwing a fit, but darnit... we crossed that street.

His parent's didn't believe that children should be "physically coerced" (aka picked up and carried if they were misbehaving or doing something dangerous) because it would make them feel "small". The also didn't believe that the adult should react to fits or being hit/kicked. (AKA, no punishment for it. And I'm not talking physical, I'm talking no time outs and no talking to and no going home from the park.) They believed that their child should be reasoned with.

Now I'm all for talking and explaining (Laughing... we do that A LOT as parents don't we? Like breathing, we're explaining the why's and why not's, how's, when's, where's, colors, numbers, history, my gawd do we ever shut it?) but I'm ALSO of the opinion that I can be explaining that we don't hit other kids as I'm strapping them back into a car seat and going home. Tie into a little remorse in that conversation.

I can be explaining that cars and strangers are dangerous, and that it is MY responsibility to keep them safe and there is NO WAY I'm setting them down to run off again. If they want to try holding hands, then they can try on the way home.

By the end of the six months the little boy would hold my hand crossing the street, stay within 5 feet of me in stores (and not knock things over), stop when I said "stop" and wait for me (driveways mostly), and come running back across the field when I whistled.
He also quit hitting other kids at parks, and throwing fits to get his own way (ha, okay, the caveat on that is on ridiculous things that he knew was wrong, like throwing fruit at people at the grocery store... or crossing the street without me).

BUT guess what? All of that still happens with his parents. He runs ahead out into streets, hits other kids on the playgrounds, screams at the top of his lungs, gets lost in stores and listens not. at. all.

I didn't teach him how to DO those things. I taught him how to LISTEN TO ME, and that BOYOHBOY things were super fun when he listened. He doesn't have to listen to his parents, so he doesn't. To this day a whole year later at 6 he still acts like a 2 year old screaming, hitting, biting, and running away from them. But with his au pair, he holds hands, listens, asks nicely, and isn't a bully on the playground.

Did I ever hit him? Nope. Hurt him? Nope. Yell at him? Well when he ran away, one has to yell for distance, but yell at him when he WASN'T far away or his name when he was about to do something dangerous? Nope.

Just clear consistent consequences and results. Stay close, or hold hands. Hold hands or get carried. Fit = Going home. Not listening = not getting what you want. His au pair does the same thing. His nanny did the same thing. And he still listens to all 3 of us. His parents? MY GOOD FRIENDS, his parents? Nope. Doesn't listen one bit. They've never given him any reason to.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Just out of safety, and if she is a "bolter" suddenly going away from you.. .there is a device called the "Mommy I"m Here" child locator... it's used for children as safety if you are afraid of your child getting lost.
BUT, you can use it to "alarm" your child as well, if suddenly she steps off the curb or into a dangerous situation...or if you are afraid she will get lost.

Here is the link for it:

I got this for my daughter, who is going on a trip with my Husband... for use at Disneyland. (which is also what parents use it for and for when in large crowds). It works real well, and it emits a loud "alarm"... I got mine from Costco... which is cheapest for a set of 2. (just click on the "where to get it" link for the website, and then click on the Costco link). also sells it... and you can read the reviews on it there. It works real well, and I am happy that I bought mine for my daughter. It is an award winning safety product.

Or, perhaps, take her to your local Police Department, and maybe they have a community service department and maybe an Officer can talk with her....

Just one idea, for prevention... hope this is a usable idea for you,

2 moms found this helpful


answers from San Diego on

My first thought is a controlled scare, purposely lose her in a place you can be sure to keep your eye on her. Its a form of natural consequences and allowing her to be a little worried about her losing you. Again, I'm not advocating really losing her, but if you can safely set it up where she can't find you, you have a very powerful situation to use as an example of what can happen when etc. etc. There are some times when she will just need to hold your hand. Period. You can let her know you want to keep her safe and as she is so wonderfully energetic and until she learns to be careful, she will need to hold your hand in specific situations. Congratulations to you on a safe five years: )


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answers from San Diego on

Ditto to Jen. I did a 'controlled scare' and it partially worked - you may even let store security in on it. What really cinched it was for them seeing a real lost child and witnessing that scene. Not something you can arrange, but a definite teaching moment. As for walking in front of shopping carts, they get one warning and then they have to spend the rest of the trip with one hand on my cart. When walking on the sidewalk, our rule is no one walks across a driveway unless I say it's clear - if the rule is broken, we go home. Safety rules generally do not get repeated warnings, after-all they are for their safety.

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answers from San Luis Obispo on

Whoa! Jen L's post reminded me of my mom's 'controlled' experiment on me at Knott's Berry Farm. I remember it well because it was my 5th birthday. I know now that she had her eye on me the whole time. I remember always being careful to be aware of my surroundings and keep her in my sight from then on (not in a freaked out way; just aware). Hope this helps.



answers from Reno on

I agree with the post that it's your responsibility to keep your daughter next to you at all times. My youngest was a wanderer and I can't count the number of places he and I left early because he refused to stay next to me or hold my hand. It was hard to miss out but vitally important.

What really cured my son of his "exploring" tendencies was to get lost in the snow after he marched off school grounds after school one day instead of going to after school care (we live in a rural area so the "outback" isn't that far away). Being cold, wet and it being nearly dark scared the bejeebies out of him and he never wandered away from us after that.

However, he WILL wander away from any family member who does not put their foot down and enforce the no wandering rules. My mom is notorious for "oh, you're too hard on him!" and would not enforce this rule. After losing him a few times at theme parks, she learned her lesson, too.

It goes both ways, I think. As the adult in charge, you need to set and enforce the rule, no matter what. As the child, it is your daughter's responsibility to follow the rules and deal with the consequences when she doesn't. Between you, me and all the mamas on this site, I'd rather be embarassed by a sceaming child than be the mom on the news sobbing for her baby to be returned to her alive.



answers from San Diego on

I would tell her that she needs to hold my hand when we are out. I would then tell her that when she is able to show me that she is able to show me that she is able to walk close enough to be safe, then she will be able to walk without my hand. Explain that this is not a punishment, but just for her safety.
Good luck with your precious daughter.
K. K.



answers from Los Angeles on

First of all.......Your child doesn't get to control whether or not you hold their hand. You as a parent lay the ground rule for that.

It only takes 7 seconds for someone to kidnap your child.

My daughter is 6 and she knows that she always has to hold my hand, no matter where we are.

If I give her the opportunity to walk in front of me, she has to be within arm reach.

We went to the Strawberry Festival today and I gave her the chance to walk in front of me. I held on to her ponytail. To which my husband was like okay... But my response was she can only be an arm length away. A police officer was standing next to us and stared smiling and laughing...

It doesn't matter what she likes. You have to do what's best for her. If she's this way with you and you choose to not straighten her out, Kindergarden is going to be very tough.



answers from Los Angeles on

Hi Y.,
My son is 6. We had a similar problem when he was four. Although he knew he had to hold hands in the street or parking lot (not holding hands was not an option) and we had to keep reminding him about the driveways, he would run up ahead of us in the mall or at the beach, etc. We tried explaining that it was dangerous - that he could get lost, hurt, that he could hurt other people by running into them but he didn't get it and didn't listen.

When he was 4 we were in Hawaii and he kept running ahead of us on a busy boardwalk and we almost lost sight of him. We decided he needed to "get lost" to get the message. While we were in the hotel where it was safe and we could see him, he ran ahead of us. We hid on the side where we could still watch him but he couldn't see us. It was only for about a minute or so then he turned around to find us and we were gone. He immediately started crying and we came out. He has never walked away from us in public again. He even holds my hand with both his hands now. I felt bad that we scared him but it was the only way he was going to get it. We travel with him all the time - mostly to New York City where we're from - so he had to learn quickly how dangerous it could be.

Good luck! I hope this helps.



answers from Las Vegas on

The controlled scare idea sounds like a great idea. Wish I had thought about it last year when I was going through this issue with my two children. What I did was had them hold my hand or onto the grocery cart whenever we were out in public. If they wanted to go check out a toy or something else nearby, they had to ask permission to and tell me where they are going. And during each of these outings, I would remind them repeatedly of our rule that when we are out in public, they have to stay close to me and if I can't see them and they can't see me, they have gone too far. Our rule also is that they have to always walk when we are in a public place - no running. I have a son with communication and social delays and a daughter with an adventurous spirit, so I started this process early and was pretty strict about implementing it. They are 5 and 6 now and pretty much understand our public safety rules so I've been able to relax my hold on them, so to speak.

Hope this helps.



answers from Los Angeles on

I believe it is your responsiblity to make sure your child is right next to you at all times, and is aware of her surroundings. Keep reminding her every few moments to say by you, or look for cars. After a million times of reminding her, it should come natural.
Good luck!



answers from Los Angeles on

You're in charge, not your child. When we are out, my son is required to hold my hand or hold onto the cart, stroller whatever. He doesn't get to wander freely. If he has issues with that, I take away toys, etc. It's a matter of safety. If you want her to do something, make her understand there are consequences to not doing it. I also plainly explain to him why I require can't see him, I don't want him to get hurt!




answers from Los Angeles on

She is old enough to have a conversation about it. My 4 (almost 5) year old had the same wandering issue. He would also take off running in a parking lot making me have to scream, "freeze" to get him to stop. He doesn't want to hold hands all the time either. So... I made a deal with him. I got to his level and told him that if he stays close to me while we are walking or gets permission before walking away from me, he wouldn't have to hold my hand the whole time we are out. It actually worked. It has been a month now and he's only strayed once. I quickly snatched him up and made him hold my hand the ENTIRE time. He hated it and I haven't had a problem since. Keep in mind, though, I remind him of our deal every time we go out (so it's top of mind for him). Give that a try. You may be surprised how mature she will be if given the chance. Good luck! :)



answers from Los Angeles on

Play follow the leader when you go places. Take turns. Also, switch roles and say for now, you get to be her and she gets to be you. And then for a while you duplicate her wandering off behavior. It will take courage to do this in public, but she will get the point.

Also, Brite Music makes a musical CD about 'Safety Kids' and how to behave in public, which may or may not help.

Next question: 2.5 Year Old Who RUNS! Ideas?