How to Take Your Toddler (Almost) Anywhere

by Linda Henry

How to Take Your Toddler (Almost) Anywhere

A successful excursion with an infant depends a lot on having the right gear and supplies. A successful excursion with a toddler, however, depends a lot on her temperament and her evolving social skills. My daughter, Grace, who’s a feisty 2, thinks nothing of clamoring down from the booster seat at a restaurant so she can play Trip-the-Waitress. Her brother Sam, 4, is more mellow and more knowledgeable about socially acceptable behavior. Still, put the two of them together in public, and there’s no telling what might happen. At the coffee shop, they might chase each other around the table or sit quietly in their chairs munching bagels and exchanging strawberry-cream-cheese smiles  — or exhibit both behaviors during the same visit.

Since a toddler’s social skills are constantly changing, a parent’s coping skills have to keep pace. Fortunately, many of the most trying developmental issues for the 1- to 3-year-old set emerge at fairly predictable ages. And while not every 18-month-old will be fearful of strangers and not every 2 1/2-year-old will throw a fit when it’s time to leave her grandparents’, forewarned is at least forearmed. So whether you’re off to a friend’s house, the grocery store, or a restaurant, here’s what you need to know to make the outing fun for all.

Linda Henry is a columnist for Lake Country Journal, a regional magazine based in Minnesota.

Despite a 1-year-old’s increasing mobility, he’s a lot more portable at this age than he’ll ever be again. He can be buckled in  — to car seats, shopping carts, and the trayless, wooden high chairs favored by restaurants  — and content to roost on high and absorb the new environment. And he hasn’t yet developed the fine motor coordination he’ll need to unbuckle or unstrap himself.

That’s the good news. One drawback: Unlike an older toddler, a 1-year-old doesn’t understand explanations or rules. So errands and social functions become like field trips  — they give him the experience he needs to learn to function in the world.

Of course, destination is a key factor. Stores and restaurants offer lots of exciting things to see. (If the store doesn’t have carts, consider putting your toddler in a backpack  — it gives him a great view and makes it hard for him to grab anything, except your hair.) But don’t rely only on the scenery. Whenever they eat out, Cynthia Downing, of Croton-on-Hudson, NY, makes it a point to involve 16-month-old Anna. “First of all, I bring a bag full of amusements  — stickers, boxes of raisins, Cheerios. But even so, it’s not as if my husband and I can sit and talk only to each other. We include her in the conversation.”

When you’re going to someone’s house, it also makes sense to plan ahead. Call your host (particularly if she’s unfamiliar with the ways of toddlers) and suggest that breakables be placed out of range. To be safe, you can bring outlet plugs and large rubber bands for babyproofing cupboards and cabinets too.

If there are older kids in the house, they may be open to sharing outgrown toys  — but don’t assume that they will. Bring playthings with you or put your ingenuity  — and your toddler’s stacking skills  — to the test. CDs, paperbacks, cans of food: All these items can be taken off the shelf and piled up. And as long as you straighten up afterward, can your host really object?

Formal gatherings, such as weddings, require backup plans. During the ceremony, sit near the aisle, preferably in the back, and decide in advance who’ll leave with the child  — you or your mate  — when he becomes restless. When you’re at the reception, you may need to keep moving around (Look, a chandelier! Hey, let’s dance!), and you and your spouse will probably have to take turns eating.

At 1 1/2, a child is constantly on the move and less tolerant of sitting still, even in familiar settings. Restaurants with an entertainment factor can serve as a distraction  — a pizza chef tossing dough is ideal, according to Anne Marcotty, of Sharon, MA; her 18-month-old, Dylan, will sit still for at least a few minutes to watch his pie being made. At the supermarket, ask your toddler to be your helper. You don’t even have to take her out of the shopping cart; instead, let her drop the apples and oranges into the plastic bag that you’re holding, or pick the cans and boxes off the shelf.

Stranger anxiety, which peaks at around 18 months, can become another issue. Your child may not want to let you out of her sight, even after she’s gotten used to the people around her. Whenever Marcotty takes Dylan to visit friends or relatives, she knows to prepare to focus her attention on him. “This is a natural and important developmental stage. You have to be able to say to yourself, ‘Hey, it will be over quickly,'” says Abbey Griffin, a developmental specialist with Zero to Three, an organization specializing in infant and toddler behavior.

A 2-year-old’s behavior can be unpredictable. Thankfully, in the last year he has made great strides in his ability to understand. He does know that basic safety issues  — sitting down in the shopping cart, holding Mommy’s hand when walking across the street  — aren’t negotiable, though he’ll still test them constantly. Give him the choice of holding one hand or the other, or one parent’s hand or the other’s. When Grace refuses and wants to cross the street by herself, I pick her up and carry her. Since she prefers to walk, she almost always asks to hold my hand.

You can also explain consequences (known to previous generations as “making threats”), as in, “If you continue to scream, we’ll have to leave the restaurant.” Your child may alter his behavior  — if he knows you’re serious about the consequences  — or he may not. In the latter case, be prepared to follow through.

So what to do when your toddler throws a fit at the diner? “Pretend you don’t know him!” says Arlene Eisenberg, coauthor of What to Expect: The Toddler Years. But before you actually get to that point, it’s best to ward off temper tantrums by making sure he’s not hungry or tired or worn out from a long day.

And if he does lose it, try to look at the situation from his perspective. Tantrums are a way for a child to exert some power over his life. “When you’re this little tiny person, and you have all these people around you telling you what to do and what not to do, you want to have some control. It has nothing to do with him being a bad child  — or with you being a bad parent,” says Eisenberg.

If your toddler can’t be distracted from his tantrum, the best strategy is to take him to the car and sit with him or hold him until he settles down. If he doesn’t, you’ll have to end your excursion and go home.

Don’t be tempted to give in, especially not to quiet a toddler so that people will stop glaring. Once a child figures out that he can get what he wants by screaming, that’s the method he’ll use. If you think you might give in to a request, do so before it reaches meltdown. If you are at a store, for instance, and your child makes a pitch for an ice cream stop, say, “Yes, let’s go get an ice cream cone. You asked so nicely.”

As your 2-year-old experiments with independence and limits, new safety concerns emerge. Your mother-in-law may have babyproofed her home by placing glass figurines on a high shelf, but your child is now capable of moving a chair over to the shelf in order to reach them. Your best bet: Don’t let him out of your sight.

Depending on her temperament and mood, your child may be very resistant to a change in activity at this age. Her behavior may call for a quick departure, yet she’ll dig in her heels and refuse to exit gracefully. This is natural  — she’s struggling to make independent decisions. Beth Lenkey, of Denville, NJ, says it’s a challenge to move 30-month-old Hannah from one room to another, let alone from store to store. Hannah employs the customary response of her age group: “No! No! No!” Lenkey’s response: She tells Hannah, “This isn’t how we act in public,” and takes her outside the store for a few minutes. If that fails, Lenkey sometimes has to cut her errands short.

Many 2 1/2-year-olds will move in the desired direction if they are given some advance warning, especially if they know they’re headed towards something pleasurable, such as getting in the car to pick up Daddy. You should let your child know you’ll be leaving Grandma’s in ten minutes  — and set a timer, suggests Eisenberg. This helps her learn how long ten minutes really is.

On the plus side, older toddlers are much more sociable. They’ll play with other kids and may not even mind that you’re not sitting with them. So though your child may not last through the whole wedding ceremony, she’ll probably be fine at the reception afterward, where she can dance with her cousins. Everyone’s happy  — including you.

Of course, temper tantrums and resisting transitions don’t always magically disappear at age 3. But with practice, a 3-year-old can graduate from sitting through dinner to sitting through a short play or even a movie. At this age, a social event doesn’t always have to be an educational field trip. Just for fun, take your mature toddler on a date.

Sam’s “graduation” occurred a few months past his third birthday, when my husband took him to his first movie. After it was over, he declared, “We must go to the movies again. But this time it will be me and Mama.”

“And me,” added Grace. I couldn’t imagine how she would ever handle an hour and a half in front of the big screen, considering she couldn’t sit still for two minutes in front of a video. “Someday,” I assured her  — and myself.