Help—Our 4-Year-Old Keeps Wandering Off In Public Places!

Dear Dr. Bill,

Our 4-year-old son has a bad habit of wandering away from us whenever he gets a chance — giving us quite a scare.  We were in a children’s museum where I took off his shoes to enter an exhibit.  When I looked up, he was gone!  We had the entire place locked down tight in about :60 seconds, but it took us almost 5 minutes before we found him playing nearby.

In the mall, he’ll run off and hide in the clothes rack.  At the beach, he’ll disappear while I’m trying to put lotion on his sister.  My wife and I try to keep an eye on him at all times, but sometimes it only takes a second.  We’ve talked to him about this and he’s promised to not run off, but the problem persists. What should we do?


Dear Scott,

My advice is—buy a leash.  Just kidding–although many parents with younger toddlers have found child harnesses very helpful.  A four year old child is old enough to learn not to wander away from the family.  The trick is teaching him that unauthorized expeditions will cost him.

That means that you need to take charge: implementing unpleasant consequences every time he wanders away.  This could involve making him serve a boring time-out in the back seat of the car, or taking away a valued toy or privilege.  Whatever consequence you decide to implement, it needs to be powerful enough that he will remember not to wander away again.

You can also encourage him to stay nearby by praising him and giving him an incentive not to run away.  You might reward him with one of his favorite stickers for every five minutes that he stays within a five foot radius of you or your wife.

If the problem persists or your son shows signs of hyperactivity, distractibility, or impulsiveness, I would suggest that you that you talk to your pediatrician.  It’s possible that he may be manifesting symptoms of ADHD.

However, it’s more likely that he simply needs firm guidance from you and your wife, backed up by actions, not simply words.

Thanks for writing Scott.  If you have a question for me about family issues or Christian living, click the “Questions” link on the Family Expert page.

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