Once you've had a child disappear from your sight in a store, an amusement park, or even your own neighborhood, it's unlikely you'll ever forget it. I know I won't. The time that I was separated from my 2 ½ year old in a Kohl's felt like the longest 10 minutes of my life.
If you haven't been that panicked parent yet, consider yourself lucky. Either way, I hope you'll read this important article by Michelle Crouch in our April issue of Parents, "What to Do If Your Child Gets Lost." As Crouch reports, almost 1,000 children a day get lost for 60 minutes or more, and those are just the reported cases. (Heavens.) The good news about children who become lost is most of them are found quickly. It is a very, very small percentage of children who are abducted by a stranger or acquaintance: 115 each year.
Still, there are some basic safety rules children can learn from a young age, like their Mommy's full name (so you can be paged), and if possible, your cellphone number. Another is if your child does become lost—and it's my favorite piece of advice in the story—is to ask the first "mommy" she sees with a child for help. Why? "Women with kids are statistically less likely to be predators and more likely to stay with your child until she finds you," writes Crouch. I also appreciated learning that most safety experts say it is okay to call out your child's name—the most natural thing a parent would feel compelled to do—since the risk of abduction is so small, and that attracting attention can actually be a deterrent to any would-be predators.
Another suggestion for children who like to bolt is to consider safety harnesses or leashes. Now, I wish I had had the courage as a first-time parent with my son, my most active child, to use a restraining leash in public places, in spite of harsh judgment. (Cam and Mitch on "Modern Family" wish they got one for Lily right away, too!) "They're a great way to keep children safe because they actually give them more freedom," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "They have more room to stretch and explore, their hands are free, and if you have multiple children it makes it easier to corral them."
One more great piece of advice is to get help, immediately—don't wait. When I lost my son, a store employee mobilized the others to guard the entrances, both front and rear ("Oh no, back doors?" I realized in my helpless state). It was my friend I'd been shopping with who found my son, clear on the other side of the store and visibly nervous. I remember my tearful relief—and that another "mommy," a stranger I never got a chance to thank properly, had joined me, without my asking, to find him. I hope this story spares a few fellow parents from lost-child panic, and helps them and their kids know what to do in this very common, all-too-human situation.
Gail O'Connor is a mom of three and a senior editor at Parents. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.