In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book By the Shores of Silver Lake, there’s a scene in which the family toddler, Grace, gets lost.
First, the family searches the perimeter of their prairie shanty. Then suddenly, Pa exclaims in horror: “The Big Slough!”
Ma and Pa and go running off into the nearby swamp grass, calling out Grace’s name in mounting desperation.
Twelve-year-old Laura thinks about where her sister would go and concludes she wouldn’t go anywhere near the nasty slough. Laura instead runs toward the prairie and eventually finds Grace gathering violets in a buffalo wallow. In true toddler fashion, Grace is unperturbed by her frantic sister and clearly unaware she has just been “rescued.”
This scene gets at some of the emotions you will find horrifyingly familiar if you ever have the misfortune of losing your toddler — panic, terror, an overwhelming sense of doom and the feeling of being a total parental failure. It also conveys the sheer, exhausted sense of relief you experience upon finally reuniting with your lost child.
A couple years ago, my husband and I lost our 3-year-old son, Felix, at the MayDay festival in Powderhorn Park for a nausea-inducing half an hour. We were all sitting under a tree, attempting to divvy up a bunch of food-truck fare onto flimsy paper plates that kept fluttering away in the wind.
At this point in life, Felix was a known flight risk. He required constant observation; even a five-second lapse could give him enough time to bound across a soccer field.
After finally portioning out everyone’s lunch, I looked around our little picnic site and realized Felix was gone. I looked at the groups of people surrounding us — not there. I looked up the hill, down by the lake, over by the food trucks, on the way to the playground — nowhere. He had vanished.
It immediately began to feel like a tension-filled scene in a movie: Weird music with lots of drums filled the air, people in freakish costumes traipsed about and the free-and easy, party-time atmosphere seemed to mock our parental terror.
No safety net
The MayDay festival is just about the worst possible place to lose your toddler. There is no “information booth” staffed with security guards on hand to help you find your wayward son; the best you can hope for is that he falls in with some friendly anarchists with a giant, dancing skeleton puppet.
Nick and I started fanning out, making circles. We finally flagged down a couple bike cops who joined the search, walking their bikes around while peering into the crowd, just like us. (I don’t know what I was expecting from the police, except that it would be somehow more “professional” than our aimless wandering.)
Just like Laura’s parents, we imagined the worst thing for a toddler — water! — and dashed over to the shoreline of the lake to see if he’d toddled into a dragon boat or fallen off a dock.
Finally, our daughter, Lydia, scanned the park and said, “I think I see him!”
The girl must have pretty great eyesight because Nick took her over to where she thought she’d seen him — a full 1,000 yards away or so — and there he was.
He walked up to Nick and said, “Hi, Dada! Look what I found!” and showed him some cool shrub or something.
Just like in By the Shores of Silver Lake, he was completely oblivious to the drama he’d caused; he’d just wandered off to look at some stuff. When Nick exploded with, “Never do that again, love!” he started crying, realizing on some level he’d done something “bad.”
Later that day, Nick and Felix were playing cars when Felix said, out of the blue, “I won’t ever run away from you and Mama again.”
He later became upset about the whole incident, and made us promise not to tell anyone about it. I guess we’ve broken that promise, but I think he’ll understand when he’s older.
Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.
Actions you can take
Parent contact info: Make sure your child is carrying identification information, plus parent contact info. You can make your own or order something from Road ID (roadid.com), which makes silicone bracelets for kids and tags that can be attached to a shoe (pictured above).
Talk to your child: Before heading out to a summer festival, fair, amusement park, airport or other places where a child could get lost, talk to your kids about the importance of sticking by your side.
Discuss what to do if they get lost: Stop wandering and stay put; find another parent with children or a person in uniform; ask for help.
Have realistic expectations based on your child’s development: For example, a young toddler might not even realize he’s gone missing or might not be able to identify a police officer’s uniform.
Take a picture: Be prepared to provide a detailed description of your child. Snap a picture of your kids at the beginning of the event so you can provide accurate information about their clothing.
Be bright: Dress your child in bright, distinctive clothes that stand out in crowd, especially if he tends to wander. Neons are hot right now anyway.
Take action: Many public places have a “lost child” protocol in place. If your child goes missing, visit the information desk or other centralized location to set the process in motion. And don’t hesitate to call the police if your initial efforts aren’t successful.