I was barely old enough to walk, but I'll never forget the time we lost my older brother at Disney World. After spinning on the tea cups and surviving Space Mountain, the family sought quiet in the Hall of Presidents. At the end of the show, my parents' head count came up one short. Mom's face turned an awful green as she scanned the crowd for a freckled five-year-old, my brother Adam. Ten frantic minutes later, we found him at the lost and found, happily devouring a Mickey Mouse ice cream cone and ready to conquer Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
There are few scarier feelings than when a child vanishes, especially in an unfamiliar place. But it happens all the time. We asked practiced parents as well as experts at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Chicago Department of Aviation for tips on how to avoid (and deal with) these little disappearing acts.
BEFORE YOU GO
- Teach your children their area code and phone number. Make sure they know how to use a pay phone and make collect calls and that they understand it's free to dial 911 or the operator.
- Put a few quarters into each child's pocket in case he or she needs to contact you on your cell phone or pager. Be certain they have a copy of the number.
- Dress kids in bright, easily identifiable clothing, such as a red hat or a striped shirt. Some families even take the Jackson 5 route and dress all alike.
- Paint a mental picture of what your children are wearing, and carry a current photograph of each. Better yet, make your kids photo ID cards that both you and they carry. ChildWatch sponsors local events at which cards are made free of charge. (www.childwatch.org)
- Create a family password, and have your kids memorize it. Instruct them never to go with a stranger who doesn't know the password (aside from the police). That way, if the family gets separated, you can give the password to authorities helping with your search.
- Make sure your children have family-emergency contacts and hotel information tucked into their pockets. In a foreign city, have the information correctly translated, and include any international calling codes.
- Tell your children not to search on their own, but instead to seek help from official personnel. Show your kids what the police look like wherever you are. And point out the uniforms, hats, or name tags of other people in a position to offer help.
- If your kids are old enough, set a meeting place and tell them to go there should you not be able to find one another.
- Make sure your cell phone or pager is turned on.
IF SOMEONE GETS LOST
- Immediately report the child as missing to the police or nearest authority. Stores, theme parks, and other venues often announce over a P.A. system that parents are lost and ask the child to come claim them.
- Subways can be confusing and complicated. If you catch the train but your kid doesn't, or vice versa, whoever's left on the platform should go directly to the ticket booth. The person on the train should contact the conductor. The clerks will contact the conductors and the police.
- Let your children know that if a stranger tries to take them away by force, they should scream: "This is not my mother!" or "This is not my father!"
LOST AND FOUND, HIGH-TECH STYLE
From Hansel and Gretel's bread crumb trail to the photos of missing children on milk cartons, most ploys intended to help find lost kids turn out to be inadequate. While there's still no substitute for old-fashioned parental vigilance, a few emerging high-tech solutions promise a little extra peace of mind.
The cheapest, Child-Guardian (516/785-6537; www.browsermall.com/baby_gifts; $40), works like one of those gadgets that enable you to find your keys. Each family member wears one; when the parent presses a button, the kid's unit emits a loud siren or a distinctive whistle—as long as Junior hasn't wandered more than 200 feet away.
Another option is to equip kids with a two-way messaging device, such as Cybiko (877/429-2456; www.cybiko.com; $100), a personal digital assistant specifically geared to teens. It can exchange instant messages with other Cybikos that are within 300 feet.
The family can also invest in a set of souped-up walkie-talkies, such as Motorola's Talkabout fr50 (800/353-2729; www.motorola.com; $47), Kenwood's FreeTalk (800/950-5005; www.kenwood.net; $80), or Audiovox's FR130 (631/231-7750; www.audiovox.com; $60). All allow distances of up to two miles between handsets. Nextel's Plus phones (800/639-6111; www.nextel.com) combine the functions of a cell phone, a two-way radio, and a wireless Web device.
An even more elaborate system called ParkWatch (301/428-2654; www.parkwatch.com) is now in use at Hyland Hills Water World, an amusement park outside Denver. Parents and kids wear wristwatch-sized transmitters that can be monitored at several video kiosks on the grounds. Employees also have portable units that can locate anyone in your party. WhereNet, the company that developed the technology, hopes to expand the service to other parks later this year.
The ultimate sci-fi solution is already in the works: Digital Angel, a small transmitter that will be trackable worldwide by satellite.