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"Caaaaarrrry Me, Mama!" Should you?

Photo Ā© Maria Manco /Stocksy United / 590092
Photo by Maria Manco / Stocksy United

“Carry me, maaaama!” There she is, arms outstretched, looking up at you with pleading eyes: in the parking lot, in the kitchen, whether or not your hands are filled with groceries, laundry, or a baby sibling.

This is a common toddler demand, and one parents are happy to honor when children are very small. But what about the 4-year-old who refuses to take another step through the grocery store? And what about the moments when you can’t—or don’t want to—pick up a child who is getting bigger by the day?

“It’s not harmful to honor your preschooler’s request to be carried, but it’s also okay to say no,” says Knowledge Universe’s Linda Nelson, a senior advisor in quality and accreditation and early childhood education expert.

In other words, the right answer to “carry me, mama!” is to find a comfortable balance between meeting your child’s needs and your own.

Whatever your child’s age, Nelson says it’s important to understand the “why” behind the request. Here are three common reasons that children ask to be carried:

He may need a snuggle.

Around age 1, children are learning to walk and gaining more independence in the process. But newly mobile explorers still have a need for attachment and connection that often translates into asking to be carried.

Older children need this reassurance, too, especially when going through a transition, like the birth of a new sibling, starting a new school, or even reaching a developmental milestone—like learning how to get along and play well with others. A 4-year-old might adapt to big changes by asking for more closeness with you.

Can’t pick him up? Try this: Sit together and reading a book. Or spend a few minutes cuddling.

She may need a better view.

Imagine the world from a child’s perspective: She spends a lot of time looking at adult’s knees. Children are curious about what’s on the kitchen counter or what mom sees in line at the grocery store.

As they are learning to socialize, many young children want to be where the interaction is happening—at the same level as the grown-up’s faces.

Can’t pick her up? Try this: Use a step stool in the kitchen so your child can watch or help you work. If she is requesting more face time, get down on her level rather than bringing her up to yours.

He may be tired.

Children have little legs, and it’s a lot more work for them to travel the same distance as adults. A hike around the block can be more tiring for kids.

Can’t pick him up? Try this: Find a bench and taking a short rest. Or pause to chat about the trees or buildings your child sees. Consider bringing a wagon or stroller on your next outing.

Be honest about your limitations.

Starting around ages 3 or 4, a child can begin to understand simple explanations, such as I can’t pick you up right now because my back hurts. Being clear about what you can’t do—and why—helps children build empathy and respect for others.

Understanding a parent’s limitations can make some children anxious, so be sure to follow it with what you CAN do. I can hold your hand and we can walk together. Shall we try taking steps like a giant or scurrying like mice?

Make getting there a playful experience.

Together with your child, think of fun alternatives to being carried. Shall we skip or silly walk? This is an engaging game that the two of you can play together.

Praise his independence.

If an older child is asking to be carried excessively, use plenty of positive reinforcement when he does walk on his own. Encourage him! How did it feel to walk that far?  I am so proud of you!

Meet Linda.

“As early childhood professionals, we owe children our very best at every moment of every day,” says Linda Nelson, KinderCare Education’s Manager of Quality Systems. Ensuring we’re doing just that is Nelson's job: She oversees our commitment to Quality Rating Improvement Systems (commonly known as QRIS), state- and local-level programs designed to improve the quality of early childhood education across the country. With more than 20 years’ experience in education and 12-plus with KinderCare Education, Nelson is passionate about giving children, including her own two young sons, the very best start in life. She holds a Masters in Human Development and Family Studies.

Read more articles from Linda.

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