Dawdling and Dashing: Behind Your Toddler's Misbehavior
Understanding and responding to common toddler behavior issues
Why Toddlers Dawdle
Lagging behind usually isn’t a sign of toddler defiance. When you’re not in a hurry, you’ll probably notice that your toddler’s held up because he’s intensely examining a rock or spider web. Taking time for in-depth exploration is a good thing (he’s curious!) and a great sign that your child is able to focus his attention on something for a long time (a big-kid skill!). By moving at a snail’s pace while you’re trying to zip along, your toddler is also gaining independence and following his own interests despite your, um, disinterest.
And when it comes down to it, kids younger than three or four just don’t really have a concept of time. (Learn more about teaching kids about time here.)
What to Do About Dawdling
When you can, dawdle with him. Ask about what he’s interested in, which is also a great way to encourage his language skills. You can learn a lot about your toddler by following him on these explorations. What’s more, he’ll feel like you value and respect the individual he’s becoming, which can prevent tantrums and other ploys for power.
The reality is, you can’t always go at your toddler’s pace. Encourage him to move along by suggesting he hop to the door, the next line in the sidewalk, that tree, etc. You can also prepare him to leave his current activity by warning him five minutes before it’s time to go: “Pretty soon, you’ll need to be done with that. We’re going to the store.” To make scheduling less stressful for you and your toddler, build in time for his dawdling. And if all else fails, see it as a reminder to stop and smell the roses yourself.
Why Toddlers Dash
“Running away is very much a metaphor,” says Tovah P. Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. “The infant is attached to the parent, but once they get up and walking, they start to separate.” And fast!
While dawdling probably has nothing to do with you, you are a key player in the game of running away. (The game being, “I run and you catch me.”) “The reason toddlers laugh when you swoop them up is their assumption that you’ll be there to catch them,” says Klein. Toddlers really have no sense that they might run too far to be caught. “When they run away, they’re gleeful. They can’t stop themselves—they’re totally celebrating,” says Klein.
What to Do About Dashing
Indeed, the diaper-change-sprint (or “Get your shoes” dash) can be annoying. But giving in to your toddler’s tests of power indoors is safe and developmentally appropriate. “You’re granting them some of that need for control,” says Klein.
But when you’re outside, it’s time for limits. Let him know clearly that you hold his hand when you cross a street, or that when he’s on the playground you need to be able to see him. If he runs away, be firm in telling him that it’s not safe. “Inside, you’re giving them some power: ‘Sure you can run!’ Outside, you give them the rule: ‘You can’t run away. We’re keeping you safe,’” says Klein. Some kids might need to stay in the stroller if their staying power is too unpredictable.
And what about “kid leashes,” the kind that attach from a wrist band Mom or Dad wears to a tag or strap a toddler wears on her back? Klein believes they’re disrespectful. “Leashing a child is a way to control a child without respecting who they are,” she says. “It may have short-term benefit by keeping the child close, but over time I would think it makes her resentful,” Klein says.
As a child wearing a leash explores, she’s being physically restrained: Klein ventures that must feel like punishment and does not help a child develop her own control, a process that takes time. Instead of leashing your child, help her learn to “tether” herself by having her hold your hand, or hold onto the stroller. “It does take time and lots of repetition,” Klein says.
More Toddler Misbehaviors
Check out these other problem behaviors—and solutions:
- Bath Time Battles
- Bedtime Battles
- Extreme Impatience
- Hitting, Slapping, Punching, & Kicking
- Mealtime Battles
- Preferring One Parent Over Another
- Saying “No!”
- Screaming and Whining
- Temper Tantrums
- Throwing Things
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