I recently wrote a story for Care.com about pool safety for kids. During my interview with Connie Harvey, director of Aquatics Centennial Initiatives for the American Red Cross, we discussed how child drownings can actually happen more easily when there are a lot of adults present than when only one grown-up is there. That’s because it’s so easy for us to get distracted when we’re in a large group. We also tend to get a bit more complacent: We figure that with so many people watching the kids, we don’t need to watch them quite as closely.
A few days ago, on Memorial Day, I learned that this does not only apply to drowning. We were at a Mets game with some family. Our group included nine adults and four kids. We had 12 seats across a row (Lily didn’t need her own ticket/seat since she is under 2), which means the people sitting at each end of the row had no idea what was going on at the other end.
After the seventh inning stretch, I got up to use the restroom. Keith, the boys, and I were sitting smack in the middle of the 12 seats. My brother and uncle were at the two seats on the aisle. My parents and cousins were all the way at the other end with Lily.
I asked the twins repeatedly if either of them needed the restroom. Of course, they both insisted they didn’t. So I went alone and rushed up the stairs so as not to block anyone’s view. Keith slid down closer to my parents with Nate.
Matt immediately decided that he did, in fact, need the restroom and decided to follow me up the stairs. My brother and uncle saw me right in front of him and assumed I knew he was behind me—but I didn’t. The poor thing couldn’t catch up to me.
I stood in a short line to use the ladies’ room, washed my hands, and returned to the seats. It took about seven to 10 minutes. When I got back, I noticed that Keith and the boys were gone. I slid down the row and asked my mom where they were, and she replied, “I think Keith took them to the bathroom.”
I was sitting there for about five minutes when my phone rang. It was Keith, sounding confused and a bit panicked. “Did you take Matt to the bathroom with you?” he asked.
In that instant, my heart stopped. “No—I thought you did!” I replied.
“I didn’t,” he answered. “But I just found him with two security guards.”
As it turned out, Keith had taken Nate to the restroom, then decided to buy bottles of water. While in line, he happened to look up and saw two guards carrying a crying little boy.
I wonder what happened to that poor boy, he thought. Then he realized that poor boy was Matt.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!” he called out. “That’s my son!”
Matt looked up and yelled, “Daddy!”
The security guards were very friendly. They told Keith they had found Matt alone and crying and asked him if he was lost. When he said yes, they told him they would help him find his mommy. The poor thing was so scared that he readily let one of the burly men scoop him up.
How scary to think about the panic we’d have gone through if Keith hadn’t happened to look up and see Matt at that moment. Only when he returned to the seats without Matt would any of us have realized he was missing. And that’s because we all assumed someone else had him.
We were all pretty rattled by the experience, but—as evidenced by this picture—Matt got over it pretty quickly:
But since then, I haven’t stopped thinking about my conversation with Connie. I know without a doubt that if only Keith and I had been at the game with the kids, we never would have lost Matt. He would have been right next to us the whole time. But with a long row of 12 seats and so many adults around, it was easy to lose track of who had him.
So here are the lessons I learned from this scary experience:
- Be extra watchful of your kids when at a party or in a large group. Don’t assume someone else is watching them.
- When walking away from your child, verbally hand him off to another adult. I walked away and left Matt with eight other grown-ups, but never said directly to any of them that they were now in charge of him.
- Teach your kids never to leave the adult(s) they are with without their permission. Matt didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong by following me, but if he had asked my uncle or brother if he could go with me first, they likely would have realized I didn’t know he was coming.
And now, we’re trying to figure out exactly what to tell the boys to do if either of them ever gets lost again. When we asked Matt how he knew it was safe to go with those security guards, he replied, “They said they would find my mommy.” That means anyone could have told him that and he would have gone with them, whether they were police officers or kidnappers. It’s such a scary thought.
I once read an article in a parenting magazine in which an expert advised teaching kids that if they are lost and can’t find a police officer, they should look for a mommy with a child. That’s because at 3 and 4 years old—or even older—it can be hard for a kid to determine what is an official uniform. A mother with a kid has a very low probability of being a predator and could help a lost child alert the proper authorities (in this case, the security guards). She’d also likely stay with the child until he finds his family.
I’d like to think that in Matt’s case, he did recognize that the two men were security guards (they wore the same burgundy shirts and black pants as the plethora of other guards at Citi Field and probably wore name tags) and felt safe with them. But if we were in a different setting—say, at the beach—knowing who to go with would not have been as easy.
In any case, I am very thankful to the kind security guards at Citi Field for taking care of Matt, and grateful that everything turned out OK. Hopefully this post will help prevent other kids from getting lost as we head into the season of crowded beaches, fairs, sporting events, and more.
Do you have any other tips on what to do—and what to teach kids to do—if a child gets lost? Leave a comment here and share. It could help a lot of families!