It's March in Austin, when there are daily opportunities for free fun involving crowds, much of it kid-friendly. The Zilker Kite Festival, SXSW, the Rodeo, St. Patrick's Day festival . . .with a crowd comes the opportunity to lose your kids. Or to think you lost them. Or to blame your spouse for losing them.
I speak from experience. Last year at SXSW's family showcase at Auditorium Shores, we were enjoying a blissful sunny day of watching E dance in the kiddie mosh pit and chasing 1-yr-0ld S around. I went off to play with S in a non-crowded area, leaving JP in charge of E. When I came back, he was engaged in talking with a friend at the edge of the pit. I waited a respectful 20 seconds and then said, "where's E?" Actually, I think I might have said "WHERE THE F@#$ IS E, G-D IT?!!!" To which he responds "right over there" and points casually at the seething nest of wildly dancing children. I squint and scan. NO E. Freakout ensues, police are consulted, friends go flying in all directions on the grounds. . . E is located about 7 minutes later, crying in the lap of a wise mom who told her to stay put and that her parents would find her eventually. Turns out she'd gone off looking for me in the opposite direction and walked all the way over to the fence line. Jeez. Pretty much the worst parenting moment to date.
Since that horrible day, we've implemented a few checks and balances that not only have prevented either of our little adventurers from disappearing again, but have made us calm and happy in crowds and while traveling. Here's my list, particularly targeted for the preschool set:
1. Adult Accountability. At all times, whichever adult is "in charge" of whichever kid needs to be clear that he/she is in fact in charge and that this assignment doesn't change unless you say some magic words, even if three other people, one of which is the other parent, are standing there with you. Crowds, especially parties, tend to create a false sense of security in that everyone thinks "someone must be watching them." This is especially important when managing more than one critter. And this seems obvious, but. . .at least one of you has to stay completely bone dry sober. Relaxed inhibitions + slower reaction time = well, you know.
2. Mobile Phone Photo. Before you head out, take a full-length photo of your child using your phone in whatever he/she is wearing that day. If it's cold, take one with coat/hat and one without. Have them stand next to something for scale. This way if they get lost, you can instantly email that photo to everyone and anyone who might be able to help you search, and you have an up-to-date picture with exactly how your child looks on that day. Hey, it worked on that commercial with the college kids and the little lost dog, right?
3. Take advantage of "Tag a Kid" or similar festival resources. At the Austin City Limits music festival, the grounds incorporate a booth where you can sign up your child for a security band. Before we had children, we used to joke and say this would be better as "Tag A Drunk" in order to keep track of loser roommates and boyfriends with a predisposition for passing out, but now I totally get it.
4. Make your own ID. In the wake of the SXSW 2009 debacle, I spent about $50 on some custom-printed wristbands with child's first name and both of our cell phone numbers. You could also just write a cell phone number on a plain band, or with a Sharpie on their arm, and if you are worried about chestermolester types establishing rapport by reading your kid's name off of her wrist you could leave off the name. I have never tried those electronic kid-locator devices, because they seem lame and are expensive, and most of the places where we are in crowds are too noisy for them to work anyway. You can also write names and your contact info on their shoes, in their pockets, backpacks, etc., but I like the wristband because not only is it easy to see, it kind of reminds the kiddo about why it's there.
5. Teach kids the rules. Even a 3-year-old can understand: (1) stay close to mama and daddy, (2) don't run off, and (3) if you do get lost, find a mama with kids or a police officer and tell them "I am lost. Please call my mama." We play games with this now, and I take every opportunity to reinforce the three main rules. For example, when we are out and see an officer or security guard, I point him/her out and tell them that is what you look for if you get lost. We ask questions like "How can you tell if someone is a police officer?" "What does a police officer wear?"
6. Get involved. Meet your "neighbors." If you are at an event with lots of kids and parents, chat up the people around you and by gosh do not feel bad about saying, "hey, uh, your little dude is way over there by that tree." Also, attending events with friends who have kids of the same age is great for keeping them in check. I have found that E is much less wander-prone if she is with a little buddy.
7. Give clear boundaries within which they have freedom to roam. This worked great with E and her little friend W last weekend at Jo's. Jo's is a crowded outdoor coffee shop/venue with a big parking lot, cars coming and going, right off a busy street. Right when we got there, we showed them where they could and couldn't get to and can you believe it, they listened. We were there for at least an hour and they only needed a couple of reminders.
8. Bright clothing. Seems obvious, never thought of it until I almost went crazy searching that outdoor crowd for my little E dressed in her hipster muted browns and greens.