How to Get Un-Lost

Mom Cop

How to Get Un-Lost

How do you teach even the youngest child what to do if she gets separated from you or a caregiver? What should she do? Who can she trust? Here's how one N.Y.P.D. vet and mother of two is prepping her kids.

Written By Lauren Wilkins
Illustration Rob Wilson

Kids can get lost. It’s a frightening fact. I’ve experienced the dread when you look around and realize your kids aren’t there; it's a pang that stays with you even if you immediately find them. The fear of getting lost is also stressful for children, especially for those who can't yet read, use cell phones or remember their addresses. In my family, the fear of getting lost ranks up there with being plunged into lava, and I’ve had to acknowledge that it's much more likely.

Telling your children that you will never let them out of your sight can be reassuring, but getting lost can easily happen — it only takes a few moments of distraction. I know from my time in law enforcement that situations can change quickly and unexpectedly. No matter how vigilant we try to be as parents, it is always helpful to plan for the unexpected.

Planning for realistic emergencies, such as getting lost, can give you and your children some sense of control. I like to have a checklist and rehearse it with my kids so they feel prepared rather than helpless. You don’t have to dwell on the dangers; instead, empower your kids with concrete steps they can take to stay safe. So, if we know kids can get lost, the question is: How can we teach them to get found? Here are my tips.

1. Teach them to stay put.

I teach my children that if we ever get separated in a public place, such as a grocery store, park or airport, they should freeze — just stand still. Once you can calm yourself enough to think clearly, you will have a pretty good idea of the route you both took and how to retrace your steps. Even if your child wandered off a little, it is better that she stop moving the moment she realizes she’s lost, rather than trying and find you. Standing still is a concrete and memorable plan, even to a young child.

2. Listen for their name and respond.

As soon as you realize your child isn’t with you, start calling his name. If he is crying or yelling (both totally reasonable reactions), he won’t be able to hear you. Explain this to him. Also, the act of listening intently for his name, even if it’s being called from far away, is a very concrete step he can focus on instead of focusing on the fear. When he hears his name, tell him to call back loudly, listen again, and then call back again. This way, you can follow his voice to find him, like audible breadcrumbs à la Hansel and Gretel. This is something you can practice at home to take some of the panic out of a real-life experience.

3. Teach them whom to ask for help.

Let’s face a truly terrifying fact: There are people out there who want to harm kids. So, if your child finds herself alone and really needs help from a grown-up, how can you help her pick a safe person to ask? Most people would honestly help out a lost child, but certain types of strangers are safer for kids to identify and approach: uniformed police officers, other “moms” or any women accompanying children and store clerks behind counters who are on duty manning the store or a cash register. When talking to my young kids, I don’t focus on why they should be afraid of strangers. Instead, I explain that some adults are there to help people. Teach them how to find these grown-ups. Show your kids what police uniforms and police cars look like in your area. Make a game out of identifying other women with children when you are out and about. Pop into neighborhood stores and point out the person working behind the counter.

4. Practice their personal information.

Once they find an adult to help, kids still need to have some clues about who they are and where they live. Memorizing their contact information can be challenging for young children who don’t reliably know all numbers or letters yet. One way is to help your kids memorize your phone number by making it into a catchy tune. Practice it with them often. You can also write your phone number on name tags you put on school clothes and accessories. Show your child where you’ve written it so they can help somebody else find it.

When my kids were really little, it was too hard for them to remember my phone number, but the name of their nursery school was easy. Remember, the school has all your contact information. Practice calling the school by its name when you take your kids there in the mornings or when you talk about their days. My kids were proud to know the name of their school. School names are easy for strangers to Google and call, and schools are safe places for your child to be taken to wait for you.

5. Heads up and hold hands.

This one is for the grown-ups. The best way to avoid danger is to see it coming. This means being aware of your surroundings. Whether it’s a fight about to break out on the subway platform or an electric bike speeding down the sidewalk, if you see it in advance, you can safely move yourself and your child out of the way. For me, this means limiting the time I spend looking at my phone, even for directions, when I am out with the kids, and remaining conscious and aware of what is going on around me. I also like to hold hands. It is comforting for both grown-ups and children, and it means you will know exactly where your kid is — even if your eyes are focused on something else.

Lauren Wilkins is a counterterrorism expert who has investigated threats to New York City by a horde of terrorist groups, from Al Qaeda abroad to Islamic State supporters in Brooklyn. From 2008 to 2018, she was a terrorism analyst with the N.Y.P.D. and served on assignment to the F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.