A month ago I was at the playground for a quick catch-up with my friend and her toddler. As we darted between the swings and the slide and the jungle gym, I noticed one striking difference between the two of us: Unlike me, my friend was crazy relaxed about her son’s whereabouts. In fact, as we talked by the swings, he was climbing one of the play structures tens of feet away. When we got to the slide, her son hovered at the top, while she hung back on the ground. (What if he suddenly runs off? I pondered internally, my own helicopter-y style bubbling up.)
But that’s when the magic happened: Anytime he came close to wandering out of range, my pal would simply call out, “Jack, where’s Mama? Eyes on Mama—make sure you can see Mama!” Miraculously, this simple command stopped her son in his tracks.
An invisible child harness? It sure felt like it. So, how did she pull it off? Here’s the scoop.
Start with a circle of trust. The goal is to encourage eye contact as confirmation of listening skills, my friend explained. “I tend to give him a lot of space at the playground,” she said. “But by teaching him how to make eye contact, he’s learned that he can feel safe to explore as long as he can see me.”
Try it at home. To practice this skill, you can encourage eye contact during simple tasks. If your toddler wants something—say, a toy—don’t offer it until he makes eye contact with you. It’s a visual confirmation that he recognizes he’s checking in with you, and there’s an interpersonal exchange in play.
Give positive reinforcement. According to Jack Maypole, M.D., a pediatrician and educational advisory board member at the Goddard School, teaching your toddler to maintain eyeshot is a smart way to set up a boundary built on trust. The best way to reinforce it? Praise. “If your toddler runs off, use a firm voice to call them back,” says Dr. Maypole. “Once they come back, praise them for their good listening skills.”