Parents want vacations to run smoothly. No one should get sick, hurt, or lost. Sometimes the latter is the hardest to avoid. Families have wanderers, eager-beavers, and inherently independent little ones that need special attention, especially in crowded places. Modern Family fans will remember the scene when Lily, a young child, runs around Disneyland, driving her fathers mad. They resigned to buying her a pair of high heeled princess shoes to slow her down. My parents chose the leash.

Many years ago, my family was on a boardwalk in Hollywood, Florida. My 6-year-old brother Stirling, who had a penchant for wandering off, was testing out the new scooter that he had received hours earlier. Unfortunately for us, there was a festival that day and the boardwalk was packed with people. As we walked through crowd, my mother allowed my brother to repeatedly scoot 100 yards up ahead and then turn around. This plan proved successful until he scooted away and didn’t return.


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My mother remained calm, but it was just the two of us. I remember climbing onto restaurant patios, trying to get a birds-eye-view of the crowd. She found nearby police officers who began a search.

Eventually, the police got word from local lifeguards that a boy resembling their description (who had a funny name) was in their custody. In a very Baywatch fashion, Stirling was brought to us on an ATV.

The incident lasted four hours and taught my family important lessons. On future trips, Stirling wore a wrist leash, was always dressed in bright clothes, and we would arrange a meeting area in case we got separated.

I spoke with Nancy A. McBride, the National Safety Director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children on the issue. Here are some do’s and don’ts to prevent any separation mishaps on your next vacation:

Do:

  • Have a plan. If possible, scope the place out before you go. Find layouts on the Internet and mark key locations like help desks. Go over this with your child and practice beforehand. “It can be as simple as asking ‘what if’ scenarios with them and seeing how they respond,” McBride says.
  • Show your child who they should seek out if they get separated. McBride sees “stranger danger” as an outdated concept. “There are good people out there. You can’t paint a picture that every stranger is a bad person.” McBride points to identifiable personnel like amusement park attendants, airport employees, police officers, and the like – nametags and uniforms are key. Mothers with children could be helpful too on an “anecdotal” basis, according to McBride. She labels them “low-risk helping adults.”
  • Snap a photo of your child on your cell phone before the day begins. This way, if anything happens, you have the most current picture of your child.
  • Dress your kids in orange. This standout color can help identify them in large crowds.
  • Have your children memorize your phone numbers. If they are too young to remember that information, you can put ID information on your children in non-visible areas. Explain what you are doing to you child and to whom they should show it if needed. This could be as simple as your name and cell number. Gadgets like the “Mommy I’m Here” beeper and temporary tattoos like Safety Tat work, but McBride warns “they don’t replace a plan and parental supervision.”

Don’t:

  • Panic. “Stay calm and use your head,” McBride says. In most instances you will have a happy reunion with your child. Panic only exacerbates the situation.
  • Hesitate to call law enforcement. Even if someone is helping you look for your child, don’t wait to notify the police. “They want to help get your child back to you,” McBride says.
  • Stray far from the separation point. This goes for the parent and child. Never tell your child to go to the car or outside the venue if they get lost. If they’re in open spaces like a mall, head to the nearest store.

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