Lost in the Mall

Our two and a half-year-old runs away from me in stores and malls. She refuses to hold my hand. Help!

Difficult though this is to handle, it is normal behavior. It shows that your child is secure in her attachment to you, and wants to explore the world and show off her prowess in becoming independent. I remember the time my little daughter disappeared in Hillside Mall just before Christmas, and finally reappeared clutching a beautiful Christmas ornament. I hadn’t a clue where she got it, so it was impossible to take it back.

Your child isn’t aware of all the dangers you think about. She just wants to run, explore, and marvel at all the wonderful things she can see. And no child enjoys waiting around in stores. Can you imagine being three feet high, and having to stand still with your head at the level of your mother’s waist, while she converses with adults or waits in a line? That’s unbearably boring compared to running around and looking at things, especially if you have a two-year-old attention span. So the first thing you need to realize is that it’s unwise to take a child of this age on a shopping trip more than a few minutes long.

You do need to provide some explanation of why you have to stay together on shopping trips. Don’t scare her with all the dangers of strangers. Most children who are abducted are not taken by strangers, and you don’t want to make her afraid of all adults. Instead, talk about what it would be like to be lost, and not know how to find you. Little children tend to think their parents are omnipotent and can find them no matter where they go, so let her know that you don’t know where to look for her when she’s out of your sight. When she’s old enough, have her memorize her address and phone number and your full name, so that she can give someone who finds her this information. You could place a nametag on her as a precaution, so that store personnel can have you paged.

The safest thing to do for now may be to restrain her by taking a collapsible buggy which she can’t climb out of, or getting one of those little harnesses, kind of like leashes for children. She can then run to the end of the leash but no further. Meanwhile you need to train her. You need to recognize her legitimate boredom at just standing around, as well as huge pull of the exciting things in the shop displays. So start small, with a 20-minute trip. Promise her that if she stays beside you while you do your shopping, you will spend some time going with her to look at what she is interested in. When she complies, keep your promise and perhaps buy her something small. When you are doing your part of the shopping, continue to talk with her whenever possible and involve her in the process, rather than ignoring her. This way shopping will become a fun parent-and-child experience for her, rather than just being dragged around. If she’s become used to this kind of shopping while she’s on the leash or in the buggy, then you can remove the restraint, but continue to talk with her, make trips short, and spend part of the trip looking at what she wants to look at. As she gets older, you can gradually increase the length of the trips.

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