One of my earliest memories of exploring a new place was a family trip to the Royal Melbourne Show in my (then) hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I would have been about 8-9 years old at the time, the eldest of four children aged about 9, 7, 3 and 1. My 3 year old brother was always the adventurous one, and as luck would have it, managed to get himself separated from the rest of the family that morning.
If you’ve ever been to the Melbourne Show, you know that it can be a loud, swarming sea of humanity and (at the risk of revealing my age) mobile phones didn’t exist in the mid 1980s. After perhaps 10 minutes of searching, my parents raised the alarm with authorities. My other siblings and I were accompanied to the on-site police station whilst my panicked parents and the Show security staff combed the area for my brother. I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember it was hot, the policewoman at the station gave us zuper-duper icy poles, and my parents were gone for a long, long time.
They did eventually find him, wandering around the side-show area looking at all the coloured flashing lights, completely oblivious to the fact that he had been family-less for the past five hours.
And my poor mother never visited the Show again.
These days, modern technology allows us to keep in contact easier, but kids are still kids, and getting lost is still a common occurrence. Here’s my top five tips on how to handle the situation:
1. Find the Family
When we were visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, a crying boy, perhaps eight years old, approached me. “Please ma’am, can I use your phone?” he managed to choke out as he wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. My heart broke. Of course he could use my phone! He dialled his mother’s number and told her where he was, whilst she berated him loudly enough that I could hear. I wanted to grab the phone right back and tell the woman how proud she should be of her son, who had overcome his fear and embarrassment to reach out for help.
Our culture has taught us (and our kids) to be wary of strangers. However, not every stranger is a predator, and children who are frightened by the idea of talking to a stranger may prolong their separation.
Teach your children to “find the family” – look for a family with children of a similar age to them and ask the parents of that family for help. This is often easier than finding a policeman or security guard like many children have been taught. Who wants their child lost for hours as they wander the streets trying to find a uniformed policeman in a strange city?
2. Know your phone number
Getting separated from the family doesn’t have to mean a day-long ordeal like it did for my brother. Children as young as three can memorise their parents’ mobile phone numbers (try making it into a rhyme or a song if they’re struggling). When my children were very young, I pinned a note to their back saying “if I’m lost, please call my mummy” along with my phone number. These days, our family has Road ID bracelets, which include name, medical information, and emergency contact details. They come in kid sizes and funky colours so your child shouldn’t have objections to wearing it. You can also get one that attaches to a shoe lace. Not only do they provide contact information, it’s also helpful for any kind of medical emergency or accident that might happen to the adults in your group.
Pockets can provide more than a simply a place to store weird shaped rocks and left over Cheerios. When exploring a new city, you can put the business card for the hotel you’re staying at into their pocket. Worst case, someone can ring the hotel to let them know your child has been found. For large busy ticketed and seated events, put your child’s ticket in their pocket, so if you get separated, the venue security staff can help find their seat (and you). Choose a zippered (or deep) pocket so the items don’t manage to work their way out.
4. Snap a photo
Each morning before you venture out, snap a photo of your child(ren) with your smart phone. That way, if the worst were to happen, you have an up-to-date photo to give to the authorities, showing what your child was wearing that morning, what they currently look like, and how their hair was styled. When panic sets in, you can’t trust your memory with such details.
5. Family Password
When your child is missing, kidnapping is the absolute worst case scenario that runs through your head. Although it is thankfully uncommon, we’ve all heard stories of children lured into vehicles by potential kidnappers by saying something like “Your mum got into an accident/ had a meeting run late/ is stuck in traffic and asked me to come get you.” Children are remarkably trusting souls. This is the exact situation that a 13 year old from Iowa found himself in (read the news report here). However this boy’s family had implementing a family password system. When the stranger didn’t know the password, the boy knew it was an unsafe situation and was able to run and get help. This system works much better than a blanket rule of “never get into a car with anyone except a parent”. What happens if a real emergency happens and you need to get a friend to pick your child up from school? By having that person correctly recite the family password, your child will know that the instruction came from you, and it’s OK.
Do you have any further tips? I’d love to hear them! Leave your comment below, or head over to our Community page and let us know!