Standing in a quiet corridor of Water Tower Place, letting my 3-year-old son burn off a little energy on a busy night, I suddenly got the chills. Scanning the crowds in the center of the mall as Jeremy ran the length of a carpet runner and back, I said to my husband, "My God, what if he got lost? We’ve never told him what to do."
Sure enough, a few days later, my son ditched my husband at a clothing store. Just as Rick was paying for his shirt and pants, Jeremy slipped away, and Rick searched frantically, asking a clerk for help. Less than five minutes later, Jeremy turned up; he had crawled under the door of a dressing room just five feet from the cash register.
As Rick says, "Those five minutes are an eternity." Even our typically fearless little boy was rattled.
Now that we’re spending much more time at Brookfield Zoo, the local parks and planning for a vacation, we hope we’re better prepared for our slippery little guy.
When it comes to preschoolers, there’s a balance between overloading them with information and fear versus making sure they understand the way to stay safe is to stay by their parents’ sides or the adult with them.
Perhaps the most important thing is for you to know yourself and your child.
"If you’re going out and you’re going to be distracted, it’s better to get good quality childcare and leave the child home," says Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That means some errands and shopping trips may have to wait.
If your kid is a frequent fleer, he might also be giving you a warning sign.
"If you really can’t go anywhere with a kid because they’ll bolt without looking back, that’s a sign there may be something wrong," such as an attention deficit disorder, says Kim Dell’Angela, a pediatric psychologist at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine.
But when the whole point of an outing is to be together as a family, there are plenty of measures you can take to keep your group intact or to know how to quickly and safely reunite.
In it together
You don’t need to scare a child into never letting go of your shirt sleeve. Fear might not be that effective, according to McBride.
"(Tell them) ‘Stay with mommy’ or ‘Stay with daddy. I want you to stay safe. If you’re with me, we can take care of each other.’ I really caution using fear as a teaching tool," McBride says. Save the nightmares you’ve had about losing your precious child for yourself.
Tell your child he or she must always be able to see you. That means no crawling under the racks of clothing or darting off to look at something that catches her eye. If your child spots something he or she wants a closer look at, let your child know that you can see it together.
Dell’Angela, who has a 4-year-old daughter, says she finds it helpful to frame the issue in terms of the parent, not the child, getting lost.
"You’re lost. They shouldn’t be afraid. They need to link back to you, but they shouldn’t get over agitated," Dell’Angela says.
First, teach a child to yell for mommy or daddy—or the adult the child is with. This really has to be emphasized to a child because his first reaction when frightened might be to shut down and be quiet, Dell’Angela says.
Similarly, if someone tries to lead the child away from where you are—the store, the park or the beach—teach your child to yell loudly: "This is not my parent!"
Preschool-age children should be able to remember their own first and last names and possibly telephone numbers.
When you enter the amusement park, the zoo or the mall, point out places that would be OK to go for help, such as a concession stand, an information booth or the store check-out counter.
Kathy Amen, a Wheaton mother of three, says even at her neighborhood parks she establishes a home base for her children.
"We talk about it a lot, and not just when we’re going on big outings," Amen says. When she brings her children to a playground, she parks the stroller someplace easy to spot, such as near a picnic table.
"I tell them, ‘If you can’t find Mom, walk to the stroller and stand next to it,’ " Amen says.
Amusement parks, zoos, malls and other places with security train their employees in child safety.
"We call it our lost parent protocol," says Katie Goodale, spokeswoman for Six Flags Great America in Gurnee. "We are taught to recognize when a child is distraught and in need of assistance."
She recommends that families take a look at the park’s Web site, which includes tips for having a safe day at the park before they visit.
These are a few good rules to teach your children:
If you’re at the mall, your children should not leave the store where you were separated.
They should never, ever go into the parking lot.
They should know that you would never leave without them.
If a lost child finds an employee or a parent who can help, he or she should stay put and tell the adult to bring the parents to the child. "It would be great if the child would say, ‘I need to stay here and wait for my mommy and daddy,’ " McBride says.
Malls and other venues with security forces understand a lost child should not be escorted to the security office. Instead, they train all employees to make sure the lost child stays in the vicinity.
"We try to keep them out in the open," says Brookfield Zoo police officer Donna Pawlak. From concession stand workers to docents, staff members at the zoo are trained to stay with a lost child and call zoo police.
Similar training takes place at Woodfield Shopping Center in Schaumburg, where cashiers have the emergency numbers for mall security, says general manager Marc Strich.
"Our message to a child is if you’re lost, go right to the store cashier," Strich says.
Look to other adults
Many advocates for child safety now dismiss the notion of the "Stranger Danger" lessons many of us grew up with.
Often, when very young children think of "strangers" they picture someone scary-looking or ugly. In reality, people who prey on children might look kind and could very well be someone who is not a stranger at all, says Ken Wooden, founder of the Child Lures Prevention program. Predators may be sociable neighbors, or kidnappers may be non-custodial parents.
Wooden is known for his appearances on television news programs and talk shows, where he has demonstrated how simple it can be for a predator to lure a child by asking kids to help him look for a fictitious lost puppy or by asking for directions. Earlier this year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich worked with Wooden’s group to bring Child Lures Prevention educational materials to public, elementary and middle schools.
If a child is lost, he or she may need to ask a stranger for help. It is fine to teach a child to ask a police officer for help, but in many cases, there won’t be a cop around.
"Teach them who to look for for help," Dell’Angela says. She suggests telling your child to look for a woman with a stroller or other children—another mom, that is.
"That minimizes the risk for abduction," she says.
A child could also try to identify an employee—someone with a uniform or name tag. When her family goes to the zoo, Amen says she points out the color of employees’ uniforms so her children—ages 6, 5 and 2½—know who to look for.
Practice, practice, practice
"Really stress this, and not just once because it’s in an article, but constantly," Wooden says. Find opportunities to talk about "what if" frequently.
If you do get separated, review what happened, says Dell’Angela. After a big hug, you can let your child know he or she shouldn’t have run off, but it’s just as important to commend your child for whatever he or she did right.
You spent a harrowing 10 minutes looking for your child, while your imagination was spewing forth images of your baby wandering into a parking lot, of John Wayne Gacy or of escalator injuries. But when you are reunited, leave the terror out of the conversation.
"You have to take a humongous breath and say something like, ‘Boy I missed you. I got very scared. Were you scared, too?’" says Dell’Angela.
Paige Fumo Fox is the mom of Jeremy, 3½, and Eli, 15 months, and a writer living in Westchester.
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