Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
When mom goes missing — Good Parenting
Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 4-year-old son about gave me a heart attack yesterday. And it’s not the first time. We’ll be at a crowded place and one minute he’s by my side and the next, he’s gone. I’m sure I’m partly to blame since I was holding his little sister as well as keeping tabs on my 3-year-old nephew. As is sometimes the case when I plan a nice outing, I took on more than I should have. This time I spotted his blue jacket (with him in it) up on stage as a woman was announcing my name over the microphone.
He doesn’t seem fazed by these disappearing acts. Although it seems like an eternity to me, it takes him a few minutes to realize I’m not with him. Then he looks for an adult to help find me. Other than staying home with him until he goes to college, how do I prevent these stressful (for me anyway) scenes in the future?
I’m Lost, Not Him
Don’t miss last week’s column Teaching Problem Solving — Good Parenting
Sounds like he has an independent streak. And he knows how to reconnect with you when he needs to. But to ease your stress, here are some things you can do to both prevent and prepare for an unplanned separation — thereby reducing your anxiety.
It’s best to keep your agenda simple if you’re managing multiple children. Children’s needs must be met, so advance preparation can save you from losing focus. Even within a few hours your group is likely to need food, drink and a bathroom. So know where you’re headed, and try to bring everything you’ll need with you and nothing more. It’s too easy to lose track of a child if you are calculating costs, checking a map, or trying to call for reservations as you maneuver through a busy place. The more realistically you plan and prepare for your outing, the more you can reduce the chances of losing focus on the children.
The best way to hold on to a child in public places is to literally hold him by the hand. If you have another child or two with you, someone may have to go in a stroller or backpack. When you’ve run out of hands, you are limited to voice control, which, as you may have experienced, is not very effective in noisy places.
I have seen competent nannies and mothers of multiples take three young children (or more!) out in public. One trick they use is to have a child hold the adult’s skirt if her hands are otherwise occupied. Baggy pants work, too. Your voice can remind them all the while that they need to be physically connected to you, even if you don’t have a hand on them. As with all guidance, repetition and follow-through help a child to learn what is expected of him. “Hold on while I get your sister out of her car seat. That’s it. Keep a good grip until I get all her buckles open. You’ve got it. Almost done. There. In the stroller she goes and we can all go in.”
Visual cues can be helpful for lost children. That blue jacket helped you to spot him, but what might you wear to help him keep an eye on you? Get in the habit of wearing something flashy — a purple and yellow winter scarf, or a tie-died psychedelic t-shirt — and make reference to it as you head out. Matching accessories or outfits — for you and the kids — is a great idea, especially when you are traveling.
A designated meeting spot can be used when your group wants to head off in different directions (as with older children, or younger ones accompanied by another adult). Pick a distinctive landmark that can be seen from a distance, such as a mounted clock. See below for practicing “Lost Mommy” drills with this landmark when it’s just you and the little ones.
Teach your children, by your example, to seek out a person in uniform for assistance. Places that you regularly visit, the mall, for instance, could be used to rehearse “Lost Mommy” drills, in which you and your wandering one can practice walking away from the landmark and coming back to it, as well as introducing yourselves to uniformed workers and having them reassure your child (and you) that they will help separated family members get reunited. It’s part of what they do every day.
A second kind of “helper’ would be another Mommy or nanny. Sexism debates aside, it’s easy for a child to view a woman with children as a link back to Mommy. And from my own experience, a woman with more than one child may be more ready to switch gears to help your lost child than one with only one child at her side. Call it sisterhood. We look out for one another.
Help Me Find You
Do you remember how to play Hide and Seek? Try this at home: combine the rules of this game with “Marco Polo” and practice a call and response to aid in finding the unseen person. You hide. Child calls out, “Where are you, Mommy?” You respond, “I’m over here!” or “Come and find me!” and repeat until reconnected. Reverse roles and play again and again.
Had this game been practiced by a former 4-year-old I know, he might have cooperated sooner with the adults trying to find him among the trees at the bayside park where they were picnicking. He stayed hidden for hours, fearing their anxious calls meant he was in trouble. It wasn’t until after dark, and they had formed lines to walk through the shallow water, that he emerged from his hiding place.
Better to prepare for being separated than to unwittingly scare your child when you panic.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com