I lost Zak on Sunday. It wasn’t for long. But he was gone.
There was a carnival in the park. Several hundred people milling around and one lost child.
If you have ever lost a child in public you will know that even a few seconds is terrifying.
I try not to make a habit of losing my children. It does happen on occasion; in a shopping centre, in the play area at a crowded park, at a large outdoor gathering. You take your eyes off them for a moment and they do a runner. Usually you find them or they find you after a few minutes. This time it was for 15 minutes. But it felt different to how it felt 3 years ago.
When he was 3 we lost him in a shopping centre. It was horrible. It was heart in the mouth stuff. The fear was crippling. The most precious thing in the world to you is gone. At that age being so defenceless and trusting anything can happen. Your whole world stops. Worst case scenarios play out in your head. Panic sets in. We found him after a few long minutes. He had just wondered off into one of the aisles.
Now Zak is nearly 6 years old. He is a young boy. He is tall. He is strong. He understands right for wrong. He’s not ready to walk the streets at night but he is not as defenceless as he once was.
We have been diligent since they were able to talk in teaching them our address and mobile phone numbers. Every time we drove into our street we told them the details and asked them to repeat. It did not take long for them to remember. Now it’s stuck in there. Yesterday our efforts paid off.
We have spoken to them on their own level about stranger danger and what to be aware of. As a family we discuss serious topics as they come up. This is usually pre-empted by a current news topic or world event. We upped the ante recently when they decided, following a tantrum, that they no longer wanted to live at home. So they started walking down the street, and they kept going. Once they were safely back in the house I gave them the uncensored version of stranger danger and the over 18 version of white vans stopping to grab kids from the street. It was pretty shocking to them. I could see their little faces trying to comprehend why someone would abduct and hurt a child. Lots of questions followed. The next time they decided they wanted to leave home they stayed within the boundaries of the garden. Now they realise that little boys or girls should not be walking the streets alone or venturing far from adult supervision and that not everyone in the world is nice. It has not given them nightmares. But it has freaked them out. Good. I hope they keep thinking about it. I don’t know how to express the seriousness of child abduction in a kid friendly way. I don’t think there is such a thing. The time comes, as it has just done for us, when it is time to tell it like it is.
There are so many dangers children need to be aware of as they seek their own independence and learn to live their lives. They need to be street wise. They need to have common sense. Neither of these characteristics are inherent in children. Common sense does not kick in till around 60! As parents you can only do what you think is best by giving them the mental tools to deal with situations. Tones of conversations need to darken the older the child gets. This goes hand in hand with increased responsibility and growing up.
I don’t think discussing adult topics with young children is wrong. Sheltering them from the dangers is. I think you know when the time is right to take it up a level. It could be that they do not take you seriously when discussing serious topics. It could be that they keep repeating the same dangerous behaviour. Perhaps they found themselves in a compromising situation and did not realise the dangers that lurked. Tough love is necessary.
Children are not as sensitive as we think. They watch the news. They have playground banter. They overhear adult conversations. They watch programs they shouldn’t. They play on computers. They see billboards and photos. They listen to the radio. They watch the actions of others. They may not be able to associate or piece it all together in their minds but it stays in there. How often when explaining something to your children do they say, “oh yea, I remember seeing that…..” or “oh yes, my friend told me that”. It takes a lot to freak my boys out but for certain topics I will try. I have heard of parents showing You Tube clips and internet photos of nasty things in order to scare or prevent their children from doing something. We have not done that but if images help to reinforce a story maybe it is required. Only the parent can make that decision.
As a young boy I was stopped on my walk home from school by 2 guys in a van. They asked me to jump in and show them where my school was. When I said “no” they started to get out their van and come towards us. I was with a friend and we bolted for the nearest house. They took off. I remember it clearly.
It was about 4pm and we had just arrived at the park. We started walking towards the carnival rides. We bumped into another family and my wife Bec, started talking to them. I took my 2 boys and this other family’s son with me and we kept walking to the rides. We entered the throng. I had my eye on all them. Then they split. A typical scenario. Within a few seconds Zak had disappeared from view. My first reaction was nothing more than a simple scan of the area to see if I could spot him. Then I moved out from the mass of people into an open area so he could see me. Nothing. 5 mins passed and still no sign. I was not overly concerned.
I called Bec and gave her the news. She was concerned and we started the search.
As the 10 minute mark approached we were more than a little worried.
When we first walked in to the carnival we passed a police information van at one end of the park. We stopped at it and told the boys if they get lost and can’t find us to come straight to this police van and wait for us.
So as 10 minutes came and went I walked back to the police van. No Zak. I told a policeman that I had lost one of my boys. Saying it out loud made it more real and I could feel that unmistakeable prickly panicky lead weight in my chest feeling. Bec by this stage had pulled together half a dozen friends she met at the park and they were all searching.
We did another perimeter check of the park. Bec went one way I went the other.
A few minutes later my phone rings.
“hello is this Rob?”
“this is Nicole, are you Zak’s dad”
“I have Zak with me”
Massive sigh. Deep breath. Regain composure.
I walked over to collect him at the bouncy castle.
It turns out Bec had spotted Zak’s old crèche teacher and asked her to keep an eye out for Zak. She had spotted him standing in the crowd looking lost and had gone over. Zak explained he had lost us and when asked if he knew a phone number replied with a big smile:
“oh yes” and he proudly reeled off my number
Nicole was very impressed at this and we were very impressed with Zak for remembering.
I asked Zak what happened. He said, “I told you I was going to the gymbus. I was waving at you from the top of the gymbus. You didn’t wave back” .
He then told me he was about to walk back to the police van when Nicole came up and asked him if he was ok.
I called all the helpers to thank them for looking. It is great how everyone rallies around.
20mins later the police call asking if I had found him. That was nice too.
So now, reunited, we all had a cuddle, got some food and debriefed.
Zak went on to win a massive red angry birds soft toy at a stall and the whole incident was forgotten about.
But it takes a bit longer for the parents to forget. It is a stark reminder of how quickly things can go wrong.