A few years ago I was at the zoo with a friend when a little boy (probably around 3 years old) ran up and tried to walk with us around the concourse. It was cute at first, him trying to hold hands with my friend, but we quickly realized that no parent or babysitter was catching up to take him back.
We kept asking him, "Where's your mom?" and "Do you have a babysitter?" but he was so young he just went on smiling and laughing, failing to provide any clues to who he belonged to. Out of ideas, we eventually took him to an information office and explained to the zoo employees how we found him. They took control of the situation.
I thought of this incident again recently while reading about a "social experiment" that the Rossen Reports segment put together for The Today Show earlier this month. For the show, a team strapped a young boy with hidden cameras and set him loose to walk around Coney Island in New York unsupervised (his mom watched him from afar the whole time). He rode rides and bought tickets at the amusement park and even offered to take two women's pictures—and no one ever questioned why he was alone.
While my friend and I were able to take the child at the zoo to a safe space, this segment made me wonder: How many times have I been in a public place and seen a lost child unknowingly? But the people who were interviewed that saw the little boy said that because he seemed confident and at ease they didn't think to ask if everything was okay.
"They're not going to be crying or hysterical," child safety advocate John Walsh told Today. "And kids are so vulnerable, at that age particularly. They're so trusting, they're so innocent, and you don't want the bad guy to come up and say, 'I can help you.'"
While it's unlikely that your child will get kidnapped, Dr. Adam Strauss, a pediatrician and father of four, told American Baby that it only takes a few seconds to stop what you're doing if you see a child who looks like they're alone in a mall, or a park, or another public space and ask if they need help—just to be safe.
Whether they're lost or have possibly run away, the segment is an important reminder that as adults, often we can get caught up in our own lives, and completely miss something fishy that's right under our noses.
It's important to teach your kids what to do if they ever become separated from you, too. Follow these tips that children as young as preschool-age can use if they ever find themselves in that situation. And also look at these five rules for stranger safety.
Photo of little girl courtesy of Shutterstock.