We were visiting Thailand when I encountered my worst parenting nightmare - my 5-year-old daughter disappeared. She was with us in the courtyard of the guesthouse, until she wasn't. My husband and I spent 35 terrifying minutes trying to locate her. She eventually returned safely on her own from what she thought was a harmless adventure, but this remains the longest half-hour of my life.
My family of four had been traveling abroad for seven months, and when we began our trip, my husband and I were vigilant about our safety practices. But after many months of touring without incident, coupled with the fact that we were staying on a relaxed and quiet island - we loosened our protocols. We learned the hard way that maintaining good safety practices can prevent harrowing travel scenarios.
"There is always some risk that your child will become separated from you in public, and more so when in unfamiliar places or at attractions you may visit while traveling," said Karen Chymy, the director of operations at the Canadian Center for Child Protection, who also works closely with the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Taking steps to prevent children from getting lost cannot be overemphasised."
Whether you are a novice at family travel or a veteran, whether your kids are fearless or prone to anxiety, there are many precautions parents can take to avoid being separated from their children.
These are the strategies of experienced traveling families we met over the course of our year abroad, as well as tips from travel experts Heather Greenwood Davis, who founded the blog Globetrotting Mama and serves on the board of advisers for the Family Travel Association, and Kirsten Maxwell, a Moon Travel Guides ambassador and creator of the site Kids Are a Trip.
Before you go
Precautions can be established before embarking on a trip or visiting a destination. Don't wait until you've arrived someplace new to explain expectations and boundaries to your excited and distracted kids.
• Set the ground rules before departing and remind kids of the rules while on the trip. Make it clear that younger children are never to wander off alone, regardless of how safe they feel. Instruct older kids to alert a parent before venturing off.
• Divvy up responsibility for children between parents. It's easier to keep track of kids in busy places if you're looking for only one or two, rather than three or four. This also will prevent that "I thought you were watching him" conversation.
• Establish a meeting place in case of separation. Choose a spot that is easily identifiable for children. Information booths, entrances and landmarks make good meeting points. Chymy suggests that young children should be told to stay exactly where they are, calling loudly for Mom or Dad. This can be especially important if they are in an isolated area, such as a park, so they don't wander farther.
• Teach children whom to ask for help if they become separated from parents. Greenwood, who completed a year-long world trek with her family, taught her children that adults in uniform could be approached for help. When her son became separated from the family at a water park, he enlisted the help of a security guard. Chymy suggests that other moms and dads are also good options as they are often approachable.
Keep kids informed
Equipping children with information such as parents' names and phone numbers is important. During our travels, I met one family who was so hardcore about the children's safety that they had written phone numbers in Sharpie pens on the kids' forearms. Here are ways to achieve this goal without a Sharpie:
• Write your contact information on a backpack or labels. Maxwell had her young children wear lanyards when they were younger. You can also tie an information tag on a child's shoe. School-age children can memorise this information, but making it accessible when they might be distressed is a good idea.
• Older children can have information stored with their money and other essentials or on their devices. But technology does sometimes fail - batteries die and cellular service isn't always available - so I'm a fan of a good, old-fashioned written note. I've even seen some parents package accommodation details and cab fare for older children.
• Parents' phones are typically filled with pictures of their kids
, but you should make sure you have a recent accessible photo of your children. Chymy recommends parents snap a photo of their children in what they are wearing that day.
Use tracking devices
Before I lost sight of my daughter, I may have rolled my eyes at people who had their children on harnesses the way you would a pet. Now, I respect that a parent knows their child best. Some children tend to wander off, potentially into traffic, and using a child harness may make the difference between traveling and staying home. The same thing that can make travel exciting - venturing into unknown and often busy places - can also make it dangerous if you have kids in tow. Parents must make decisions that will keep their children safe and alleviate their own anxiety - even if that means using a harness. Here are a few more options.
• When her children were young, Greenwood insisted that they have physical contact with one parent while in busy places. As the kids got older, she adopted the "sandwich rule": Parents were the bread on the outside, and the children between them chose which ingredients they wanted to represent. If the sandwich started to fall apart as they moved, she would call out, "Where's the pickle?" referring to one of her children. Chymy finds strollers and carriers effective tools for parents.
• I thought the families at Disney with matching T-shirts were just celebrating something. But there's another clever reason for this - they can easily spot one another. Outfitting kids in brightly coloured T-shirts before mixing in crowds has worked well for our family.
• As our kids get older, they want more freedom, so we have invested in a quality set of walkie talkies with a three-mile range. I'm a fan of these because they are not reliant on cellular service or WiFi; you do have to keep them charged, however. They also double as a great toy! We find these especially useful when hiking or camping, because the kids want to explore and we want to stay in touch.
• There is no shortage of available technology on the market to track kids of all ages. These devices are like virtual harnesses. HereO (GPS, NZ$306 plus a $8 monthly subscription) and My Buddy Tag (Bluetooth, NZ$60) are watches for kids that connect to apps on parents' smartphones; they will pinpoint a child's exact location. HereO even allows you to set zones so parents are alerted if a child leaves a designated area. AngelSense (NZ$350 plus $46 to $78 per month) is a popular and comprehensive child-tracking system used for both younger and older kids. Parents not only know where their children are at all times, they can determine whether kids will be late or are in an unfamiliar place. Parents also can communicate with kids and listen in on them. It does come with a hefty monthly price tag, and some might argue it has a Big Brother vibe, but it was developed out of necessity by the parent of a child with autism.
If you are separated
Should you become separated from your child, first and foremost, don't panic. Ideally, you have all the systems in place for a speedy reunion. Even though our trek around the world taught me that people are kind and generous, and typically embrace children, the moment my daughter went missing every face I saw was that of a potential abductor. This is simply not true. Several times I found myself leading a teary-eyed child around a market or museum in search of his missing parent. People want to help.
When my daughter was doing her solo tour of the streets of Thailand, a backpacking couple asked her if she was lost and offered to help. She said no, she most certainly wasn't lost, and went on her way. I was so moved when they let me know that they had followed her, at a distance, the entire time until she was safely back with me. I learned that we live in a world where we look out for one another's children. Stay calm, remember the plan, and most likely you will be reunited soon - even if it seems an eternity.