Illusions create the myth that toddlers “get away so fast” when a parent turns their back for a few seconds.
Every time a story surfaces of a lost toddler or preschooler, invariably the comments pour in about how fast young children “get away.”
But when an older child — who can clearly run a LOT faster than a preschooler and especially toddler, goes missing while on a shopping trip or at an amusement park, nobody says, “They get away so fast.”
The “They get away so fast” sentiment has always applied to toddlers and preschoolers.
Suppose a woman and her toddler are at the mall. She’s not holding his hand. She turns her back on him.
At that moment he wanders away. Three seconds later she turns and he’s gone—POOF!
The illusion is created that he “got away so fast.”
What really happened is that it took him only two seconds to wander around a kiosk, which, by the time the mother turns back around, is obscuring her view of him.
She has no idea which direction he went. There are people and multiple entrances to nearby stores. She panics and randomly chooses to enter the nearest store.
Or, she may frantically head off in a randomly selected direction, weaving in and out of people.
While she’s doing this, she’s getting further away from her toddler, who’s also moving.
He may even be moving quite slowly, dawdling and poking around, while she hurries, creating an increasing distance between the two.
A woman at the grocery store turns her back on her four-year-old for “just a few seconds,” then turns back around and the little girl has vanished.
The girl, at a normal pace, needed only a few seconds to walk to the end of the aisle and make a left turn.
Her mother dashes to the end of the aisle, and by this time, the girl is wandering slowly down the next aisle over to the left.
But the mother turns right and looks down the next aisle to the right and sees no child.
She then returns to the aisle she was in, then goes past it to the next aisle — the aisle that her preschooler had been meandering down just moments before.
But the preschooler is nowhere in sight, because enough time has lapsed by this point for the girl to now be one more aisle over to the left — which would actually be to the girl’s right once she got to the opposite end of the aisle.
The mother runs down the aisle her child skipped down, but turns left!
Hopefully you can now understand how these problems in perception and reaction have nothing to do with the speed of a young child’s legs.
“I think this concept refers to how fallible our sense of time can be,” says Dr. Tia Kern-Butler, a licensed psychologist for over 20 years who treats a broad range of issues including relationship problems and behavioral issues of children and adolescents.
“What seems like five seconds to one person may seem like 10 to another. When our attention is focused elsewhere we may not truly realize just how long we were distracted.
“The common example of how far a car going 60 mph travels when you glance down at your phone for five seconds is a good reminder of this. The answer is the length of a football field!
“One would never describe having traveled that far in that perceived length of time, or likely even that it felt like five seconds.”
When a Third Party Witnesses a Toddler Getting Away
Certainly, you’ve witnessed toddlers and preschoolers wandering away from their parents in public.
How fast does the wandering child actually go? Have they ever bolted into a blurry sprint?
Or had they just slowly wandered off while Mama isn’t looking?
The parent then turns around and is startled that the child has gone missing!
She collects the child from around a corner and exclaims, “My little one gets away so fast!”
But from YOUR point of view, the child moved slowly. Again, the issue is perception.
Currently in private practice Dr. Kern-Butler spent 10 years as the lead child and adolescent psychologist with Winter Haven Hospital and served as the mental health liaison for the Children’s Advocacy Center for 14 years.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.