Some kids never leave their parent’s side when out and about, but others wander without concern and are at risk of getting lost. I’ve had one of each, so I know first hand how scary it is to have a wanderer. Many parents worry that their kids will be abducted, but the large majority of lost kids leave on their own accord. Usually there’s no foul play and they can be found relatively quickly (though it seems like an eternity for a worried parent). What can you do to keep kids from wandering and getting lost?
Many times that parents realize their kids are missing, the child hasn’t made the same realization. Parents might be scared to death, but the child is fine – they are often enjoying an adventure and completely unaware of the problem.
Why do they wander?
Distraction and fun
Most of the time they have no clue what they’re doing, especially if they’re too young to really comprehend rules. They aren’t afraid if they’re focused on something else, which can be anything that gets their attention.
It doesn’t take much to get a child’s attention, especially if you’re at a new place. The new place is also riskier because if they do get separated, they don’t know where they are or where to go for help.
Sometimes kids just want to do something fun because they’re bored. How many kids decide to play hide and seek while shopping? I’ve seen many crawl under clothing racks…
Small children can dart between people in large groups, making it hard to keep up with them without pushing and shoving others out of the way. They don’t realize when they’re focused on something that you’re not right there. Despite saying “excuse me,” I felt inconsiderate plowing through crowds to keep sight on my runner. (She was more than a wanderer…)
Parents get distracted too
Maybe you’re comparison shopping to decide which brand to buy. At some point you have to pay and talk to the cashier.
When your phone buzzes, it’s easy to answer a quick text. Studies show many parents spend a lot of time on their phones when they’re with their kids.
If you hear another child’s cry, do you look in their direction to be sure they’re okay?
And if you have more than one child, you can only really watch one at a time…
It only takes a second to look away from your own child for them to bolt and disappear.
A kid’s view
Kids don’t worry about wandering and getting lost. They get bored or get distracted.
I know one child who was lost at his brother’s sporting event. He decided he was tired and wanted to lay down, so he made it to the family vehicle and took a nap inside.
It all made sense to him, and he didn’t understand why all the parents (it was his brother’s game, so the whole team was looking for him) were upset.
We recognize that a small child roaming through a parking lot is dangerous, but he thought it was reasonable to nap in his familiar seat. He figured his parents would go to the car at the end of the game and find him.
Kids don’t think like adults. We need to talk to them about rules.
“Stranger danger” has a nice ring to it. It’s catchy to say. It’s commonly taught to kids.
But it isn’t effective or safe.
The large majority of strangers are good people. If a child is lost, they shouldn’t feel afraid to talk to the right stranger. I’ve heard of kids refusing to talk to caring adults, which delays reuniting them with their families.
The large majority of abducted (and abused) kids are victims of people they know – not strangers.
talk to kids about boundaries & rules
Kids should never be alone with an adult other than the “safe” people you’ve identified with them. This helps to protect them from predators they know.
They should know to never leave with a person unless that person knows a code word. Even if that person knows their name (it’s easy to listen and learn a kid’s name, or it might even be printed on their shirt or backpack) they shouldn’t leave with that person unless it was pre-arranged or they know a special code you’ve discussed.
All kids who are potty trained should know that there are places on their body that are private. Private mean no one should look or touch there unless you’ve given permission for that person. Permission should be given if they need help toileting (including wiping), bathing, or when it’s part of a medical check up. These private places include anything a swimsuit or underwear would cover.
See the bottom of the blog for resources on talking to kids about these big topics!
7 Ways to Keep Kids from Getting Lost
Preparation is key!
Talk to your kids about what they should do if they are separated from you.
A lot will depend on their age, maturity level and where you’re going.
If you know the place you’re going has a lot of distractions and crowds, such as an amusement park, you will need to plan differently than if you will be in a neighborhood park that is familiar or a family gathering where they know lots of people.
When you’re out and about, it goes without saying that someone needs to be responsible for watching the kids.
This is especially true if you’re going with a group. Sometimes there are so many adults, it’s easy to think someone else is watching a child, but no one is. Make it clear who is responsible for watching each child.
If there are a lot of kids for each adult to watch, have the kids pair up with a buddy. They should not leave their buddy. Schools use this system for field trips and it helps keeps track of the kids.
Remind kids that they should never be alone with an adult, even one they know, unless it’s one of their safe adults. (A safe adult is someone you trust wholeheartedly.) There’s safety in numbers!
For your own safety and to avoid mistaken intentions, never be alone with a child who is not your own unless you have permission from their parent. Having two adults around in restrooms and other private areas is especially important!
2. Give kids identifying information
Until kids are old enough to know your phone number (and be able to tell it clearly to a stranger), have them carry it around in some manner. They should know that they can pull it out when needed.
You can make a bracelet with your number. Get number beads from a craft store and kids can help string them!
Put contact information on dog tags so they can wear it as a necklace. Even boys think this is pretty cool.
There are places to make customized temporary tattoos, or you can just use a permanent marker. This isn’t my first choice, but in a pinch, we all have markers.
3. Be ready to identify
I’m that parent who didn’t remember what I dressed my kids in most days. If they were appropriately dressed for the weather, I didn’t really care. But it does matter if you’re looking for a lost child.
If a child is lost and you’re stressed, it’s especially hard to recall what they were wearing.
In today’s world of everyone carrying a phone with photo capabilities, it’s easy to snap a picture.
Take a picture of your child before going to crowded areas. This photo will not only be recent, but will also show what clothing your child has on, which makes it easier to find your child.
4. Be prepared for boredom, hunger, and fatigue
When kids are tired, sick, hungry, or bored, they’re more likely to act up or try to make it fun.
Plan the trip around nap times as much as possible. Bring a stroller to let a tired child rest if needed.
Ideally we’d all stay home when sick. Bringing kids to public areas when they’re sick spreads germs.
Keep sick kids home whenever possible. It’s better for them and the community!
If they will normally eat during the time of the outing, bring along something to eat.
Make sure the snacks are not going to leave a mess.
Don’t include nut products, since leaving residues around a public place could be life threatening to another child. (There are many other food allergies, so ideally you will wash their hands and wipe surfaces after any foods.)
When you know the places you are going are not kid-friendly, try to make it into a game or at least get the kids involved.
The grocery store can be a place to talk to kids about choosing healthy foods. You can do simple math with them by figuring out how many apples you need for the family for the week or by choosing the better deal among differently sized packages.
If you know the kids will have to stay in one place for a while, such as waiting at the DMV, bring books, small toys or games to keep them occupied.
Practice with your kids what they can do if they’re separated. Their risks and abilities change as they get older, so you need to continue the conversation and adapt the plan over the years.
I sometimes would covertly watch my daughter when she ran ahead to see how long it took her to realize I wasn’t right behind her. I wanted to see what she would do when she did figure it out. By preschool she was a pro and knew what to do. She would yell my name or ask another child for help, but at least she stopped where she was and didn’t continue to run further away.
Adults look, kids stay put
I always suggest teaching kids to stay put if they realize they’re lost, unless they’re not in a safe place. If they’re in a street or other unsafe place, they should go to the closest safe location.
Kids should NEVER leave the building or area to look for you. You can teach older kids to go to the front of the store (or find a person in the uniform of the place you are) when you think they’re capable of doing this. Younger kids should just stay put.
Remind them that you will always look for them, and if they stay in one place it’s easier to find them. If they keep moving, they might go to a place you’ve already looked but left, so you won’t find them.
Remind them that it’s okay to yell for you by name or whatever they usually call you, even if they’re in a place that’s usually quiet.
When lost, it’s okay to ask for help. This is why I don’t want kids to be taught stranger danger.
They should know that if an adult approaches them when they’re not lost, they should be cautious. If they’re at a park and an adult asks for a child’s help looking for their dog, that’s not right. Adults can ask other adults for help. They shouldn’t ask kids for help.
If an adult is offering to help when a child is lost, usually that’s okay. Yes, it’s possible that they’re taking advantage of the situation, but how likely would it be that a person of that caliber would be right there when your child is lost? Most people are good.
Kids should be told to give your phone number to a person who’s trying to help. It’s okay to give their name to a person who works at the place you are visiting. It’s confusing because kids are taught to not give their name and personal information to strangers, but it can help find parents names are shared.
Kids should be taught that they should not leave the area, especially with a strange adult. It’s okay if they help the child find the front of the store or a worker, but they should NOT take the child outside the building or park.
Ask another child for help
That child can then ask the adult they’re with to help your child.
Kids are generally safer to talk to and not as threatening to a child who’s already scared.
The other adult can call your phone if your child knows or is wearing your number. (Pay attention to your phone when looking for your child and answer calls from unknown callers!)
Ask a worker for help
Kids can also look for people wearing the uniform or nametag representing the place you are.
Point out what people wear when working at the location you’re visiting. Whatever it is, be sure your child knows what to look for.
We used to stop at the front of the store routinely so my daughter could be reminded what the cashiers wore. She could talk to someone with that uniform if she was lost.
6. Meeting place
Elementary school aged kids can learn where to meet you if they get separated when they show enough maturity and confidence.
Point out a customer service desk, a landmark at a park, or an easily found place where you are going. You can both go there if you get separated.
By middle school many kids like to be able to shop or play at a park with friends. If your child displays the maturity to do this, then it’s a great way for them to develop independence. Be sure that they know a time and place to meet and how to contact you if they need you before that time.
I know “restraints” sounds so negative, but think about it.
It’s for safety, not punishment.
We restrain kids in the car because we know it can help to save their lives.
Not only can toddlers and preschoolers wander and get lost, but they can easily get injured when they’re not supervised.
Shopping carts and strollers
If your toddler or preschooler runs around, he’s not safe. If you strap him into a shopping cart or stroller, they’re safer.
Be sure to use the straps appropriately. They can keep kids from climbing or sliding out.
Our stroller just had a lap belt. The newer ones with shoulder straps would have prevented the time my daughter jimmied out of the lap belt and onto the concrete head first. I was pushing her in the stroller, trying to keep up with my son who was running ahead. I was unaware she was climbing out because I had my eyes on my son. She had quite the goose egg!
I also have become a fan of leashes for young kids. I know many people think they’re cruel and only appropriate for animals, but I have had great experiences with them.
As mentioned above, my daughter was a runner. I lost her more times than I want to admit. She hated being strapped in a stroller – as I shared above. Of course she often refused to hold hands because she wanted freedom. Family outings that should have been fun quickly became miserable.
When I first got the leash my husband was horrified.
My kids loved it.
It was a cute monkey backpack with a leash. They loved taking each other for walks around the house and even fought about who would wear it. Since it was a backpack, they could carry favorite toys inside.
In public areas my daughter would wear it happily. When my husband saw how my daughter was so much happier having “freedom” while being leashed to us in public, he was sold on the idea.
Warning: if you use one, be ready for judging looks. That’s okay. If they have a runner, they’ll understand. If not, they have no idea.
Leash and book suggestions
I’m an Amazon Associates Member. I do get a small amount of money if you purchase from the following links, but there is no increased cost to you. As always, I only link to products that I recommend regardless of where you purchase them.
These wristband harnesses are great because they allow roaming while being safe, but do not look as much like a leash. There are two sizes, which can allow a child to go a bit farther than many of the backpack styles. It’s basically like holding hands from a distance!
I suspect you’d get fewer evil looks from strangers by using the wristband, but young kids might actually prefer the backpack styles because they’re cute and they can carry “stuff” in them.
I like these because they’re insulated for food storage in addition to having a strap for safety.
Going to Disney? I can see these popular there and for any Disney fan. I lost my 3 year old briefly several times on one Disney trip…
This monkey is similar to the one my kids loved. They’re also backpacks, so they can store a few of their favorite things inside. There are many cute designs.