Readers’ Advice to Mom Who (Temporarily) Lost Kid at Airport

"Don't keep talking about it over and over again with your daughter," suggested one.

Recently we ran the letter a mom named Katy wrote to Let Grow about how her child, 6, wandered off at Newark Airport after Katy had asked her to stay put while she got them food.

Upshot? A friendly stranger noticed the girl and marched her over to a woman in uniform (airline worker? military gal?), and soon mother and child were reunited.

But Katy felt deeply ashamed of this “fail,” and said that now she and her daughter are both worrying about ever being separated again — even though Katy is a big believer in Let Grow and childhood independence. She asked us what could she be doing other than re-hashing the “mistake” with her daughter.

That’s where you came in!

We turned around and asked you to help Katy with some great advice and you did! Rather than seeing this as evidence of bad parenting and/or a child too young for any responsibility, many of you suggested the mom try to consider the experience as one with a happy ending. Because it was!

I’d written Katy back myself to say I hope she recognizes how common this experience is, and tries to stop discussing the “failure” over and over again with her daughter.

Herewith, a sampling of some of your (edited) responses:

This happened to us, too!

Dr. Stephen Glinick wrote:

Lost at the airport reminds me of when my 6-year-old disappeared from a ticket booth line while standing immediately behind me at a crowded county fair.  My wife and I spent the most terrified half hour of our lives searching for her.  We were convinced of abduction or being eaten by a 4H prize winning hog. 

But our daughter had the bright idea to ask a policeman for help and she told him her uncle ran the Philly Cheese Steak Stand.  When I finally exhausted myself and tremulously returned to the stand, there was my daughter happily munching on cotton candy and wondering what all the ruckus was about. Although it took six years off my life it was a great lesson in the durability and common sense of a well informed  child.  

You both just witnessed the kindness of strangers.

J Lynn wrote:

It strikes me that losing your child for 15 minutes with an outcome that includes multiple adults noticing her actions and a couple helping her is actually the evidence that she will be okay alone. I lost my four-year-old for about 5 minutes at an amusement park (he walked to the opposite side of a kiddo ride and I couldn’t see him, and we walked around it just missing each other). The exact right thing happened — a security guard saw him crying and stood with him until I came around again and found him.

These are signals of a safe, caring world. If anything, instead of focusing hard on the “don’t move” message, I would focus with her on the “when you feel lost” tools, so she feels empowered to solve the problem next time. In this case, by teaching her to ask for help from the nearest adult next time she feels worried when she’s alone (even if she’s staying still), she could help solve it herself by asking a nearby adult to stay with her until her mommy comes back.

You failed? Good!

Kim Kohler wrote:

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this mom and her daughter but I raised two kids who were once six and I taught six-year-olds for many years. At that age kids (for the most part) want to be independent but really are not very world-conscious….

The truth is that only by failing (in the case of the girl and her mom, both technically “failed”) in their choices, can a solution-based thinking mode go into effect. I hope she praised her daughter for looking for help because that really is the most hopeful thing to come out of the event. There is usually help!

One of the reasons I am replying is because when my kids were five and six and their two cousins were six I got stung by a bee while watching them all in the pool. No cell phones, or anyone else around but the pool man. I knew I needed medical help. I asked the pool man to watch the kids while I drove myself to the hospital. I know it sounds crazy but it worked out fine…

Know where and who represents help and teach children to be proactive in seeking it!

Don’t dwell on dread.

Barbara Sarnecka wrote:

The thoughtful letter from Katy shows that even parents who know the value of independence aren’t immune to the fear of something awful happening, even as we recognize that the chances of those things actually happening are infinitesimal. The key is that we don’t let those fears rule our lives, or overshadow our children’s growing-up years with dark clouds of dread. As Lenore says, all the worry in the world doesn’t prevent death, but it does prevent life.

In very practical terms, Katy, I would suggest talking with your daughter in something like the following way (here I’m imagining that your daughter’s name is Annie, and you are at a busy airport again.)

Katy: “So Annie, Here we are with all of our bags, and I’m getting hungry. I’d like to get us some sandwiches, but it’s going to be hard for us to take all of these bags with us to stand in line. What do you think we should do?”

Annie: “Don’t leave me alone again, I got really scared last time.”

Katy: “I’m sorry that you got scared. I got scared too, when I came back and you were gone. What can we do differently so that doesn’t happen again?”

Annie: “I could come with you to stand in line.”

Katy: “Yes. that’s one thing we could do. Then we could stay together and we wouldn’t be scared. But it would be hard to carry all of our bags with us. And if we leave the bags here, I’m worried that someone might take them.”

Annie: “Yes. But if I stay here alone, someone might take ME!”

Katy: “Hmm. Well that is a very scary idea, even though it almost never happens in real life. It’s never happened to me, or to anyone in our family, or to any of our friends, or to their families, or to their friends. I’m really very sure that it’s not going to happen, and that’s why it’s okay with me for you to stay alone with the bags. But I don’t want you to be scared, so let’s think about what you could do if you felt scared while I was gone.”

…And then they could discuss the pros and cons of things that Annie could do. For example, going to look for Mom didn’t work well last time. But Mom could help Annie identify people to ask for help, or make sure that Annie knew Mom’s cell phone number in case she needed to ask a grown-up to call.

The point is to discuss the fear and let the child participate in coming up with ways to handle it. This helps her to deal with the fear constructively and to develop confidence in her own ability to navigate the world safely. 

Good luck!

What to do if your child has an active (scared) imagination.

Adrienne wrote:

I have a 7-year-old girl at home, and have been following a similar path of leaving her alone in specific situations as well.  Her latest thing is using a public restroom on her own.

One thing I would say we focus on is not just telling her to “stay here and not leave.”  My daughter has a very active imagination that can run into some fearful places sometimes.  We try to talk through the whole scenario first.  

 – Here is where I think I am going for food, but I might go somewhere else. 

 – Here is how long I think I will be gone (her tablet can tell the time).

 – If you think something is wrong and I have been gone too long, what do you think you should do?

 – Who are the “community helpers” (term used at school for trustable adults like law enforcement or in this case airline staff)?

 – If you get lost, what do you do?

I find that by talking through the scenarios, she seems to be more comfortable because we have a plan.  I have read articles that say that just the act of thinking through your reaction to emergencies of all kinds has a very positive impact on your ability to respond appropriately in the moment.  We just take it a step further and talk it through with our daughter — it really helps all of us, not just her.

Identify landmarks as you go.

Malia wrote:

Dear Let Grow,

I am a mom of boys,age 6 and 9. I just wanted to share helpful tips for going to busy places where getting lost is a bit scary! 

First of all, my kids (even my six-year-old) know my phone number by heart…

Another tool to use in a busy place is to identify spots we can meet if we get separated. For instance, you could point out, say, Gate 5 (or similar) and say to the child that if for some reason we get separated, meet me here at Gate 5. Going to a designated spot can help the child feel like they’re doing something proactive. 

I would say practice with repeated successful experiences of waiting and her mother returning is probably the only way forward. 

Teach your child to talk to strangers.

Virginia Morris wrote:

I’m afraid that I can’t “relate,” since I lost my child once when he was 3 and left him alone to play with a Lego display.  A couple of older ladies had found him.  He did not seem particularly concerned either time, and got his picture in the local paper with the Legos…

But, when the people in his preschool talked about “stranger danger,” I pointed out that we had moved to a different state when he was 2, and if I had not been willing to talk with strangers, we wouldn’t yet have any friends.  When we got to our new home, everyone was a stranger!  And they were all very nice and helpful people.  They explained how to find the parks, the shopping centers, the “kiddie classes” at the Park District, and many other things.

So maybe, when Katy takes her daughter with her to different places, she could make a point of striking up conversations with people she doesn’t know — checkout clerks, other shoppers, people at her church if she goes to a church, or wherever.  Then, afterwards, she could talk with her daughter about what nice people they were.

Focus on what went right.

Susanne Bowen wrote:

I think I would have handled it similar to when my children accidentally “went under” before learning to swim efficiently.  It scared me and terrified them, but I knew when they came up that I needed to respond positively or they would lose ground on their journey in learning to swim.

They surfaced sputtering and almost crying and looking to me for my  response. I plastered on a smiling proud parent’s face and told them what a good job they did — “Wow, you were swimming!  Good job! You went under.”  Usually they would realize that yes, they were fine and yes they did “go under” and survived.  Even before they could talk, they reacted to my face and mood and learned from it.  Yes, I was worried that my children might drown, but I knew it would be less likely if they were calm in the water and knew how to swim.

You and your daughter had a scary experience at the airport, but you survived! Tell her how brave she was and what a good job she did. Then you should discuss things she could have done better.

Panic makes everything look unrealistically scary and the brain “turns off.”… Coping tools must be taught and practiced in every situation.

Get back on the horse.

Holly wrote:

I’ve been following Let Grow for years now.  I just saw this latest article pop up in my inbox and wanted to respond.

Honestly, I say to confront the fear and show some tough love.  Don’t keep talking about the incident over and over again or pacifying your daughter.  Yes, be supportive and tender initially, then shift to confident encouragement and action.

Plan to get back on the saddle and try it again.  Get right back out there and start doing these same short periods of independence that you’ve been doing all this time, even at the airport again.  There’s nothing like the confidence and growth that comes from having been afraid or failing and then getting back up let alone conquering it!  I’m not saying it’s easy or comfortable. But you as the adult have to “fake it until you make it” and be a little stronger for your daughter so that she, in turn, will embody that strength and grit! In the end, you both will experience growth and strength.

My son is now 13 and he still remembers “close calls/near misses” from when he was age 4 (getting lost in Kohl’s) and age 6 (struggling to get above water at the swimming pool), but I don’t give either event too much attention.  Yes, those events scared me.  Yes, reminiscing about them can feel uncomfortable still.  But, it didn’t and hasn’t stopped me from encouraging his independence nor him taking risks towards independence. 

Recognize that adventures are normal — and fun.

Jeanie wrote:

Hi Let Grow!

I guess it is too late for the mom to see the daughter with the uniformed lady, pull herself together, and approach the frightened little girl with a happy face, saying, “Oh, hey, Sweetie! No need to be scared. Everything worked out just right. You found someone to help you and that’s exactly what you should have done. Now let’s go grab some candy to thank that other nice family for watching our bags.” But it isn’t too late to mentally rehearse that grand pretense for the next time. 

The NEXT time? Yes. Mom might need to start over with the baby steps toward independence again but this time she knows that her daughter needs more info to be ready. The gate number, for example. Before leaving the little girl, “Okay, if we get separated we both need to remember that we need to return to gete 29” or the library table near the history section, or the corner of the park next to the bike rack or whatever. 

“Stay right here” is not (was not!) enough. “You said you would stay put” is blaming the kid for getting lost but nobody was lost. Just separated. Next time, send the daughter to go buy a pack of gum and return to gate 29. Or send her ahead: “Go over to that shop and pick out a soda for each of us and I’ll catch up with you as soon as I finish this phone call. What gate should we look for on our way back?”

It is important to know that the lesson they both need to learn is that adventures are fun, not that getting lost is terrifying. That means Mom needs to gear up for fun adventures with happy reunions. “Oh, THERE you are!” instead of “I was so scared you were lost.”

My husband says six is too young. He might be right. But up until Newark, the little girl was NOT too young. (Now we are both trying to remember how and when we gained independence!) 

When my kids were teens and learning more advanced lessons about independence,  I knew they would screw up, get in over their heads, or make bad choices… my job was to stay calm and help them deal with their mistakes. Same for this mom, I think.

“Oh, there you are,” or “You found me!” gives more confidence than “I was so worried,” or “You must have been scared.”

That poor mom. I would have been frightened, too!

Watch “Old Enough” and print out a Let Grow Kid card.

Lana Gordon wrote:

The first time I flew with my oldest he was 12m. We were leaving the bathroom and he refused to hold hands and I figured, well, we were just going out the door, how lost could he get? He stopped to gape at the air dryers and about 4 different women shouted “Excuse me! Your son!” That was when I realized that it’s true: the world is full of kind people who want to help. 

That’s what I told the very same kid yesterday when he bounded into a carnival ahead of the rest of the family and got lost. He wandered around, not asking for help because “everyone was busy.” I told him every single grown up at that carnival would help him because they’d want someone to do that for their kids. (He knows to stay put when lost and he knows my phone number, but he’s still five…) 

My middle kid is a pro at getting lost. He looks around vaguely, doesn’t recognize any knees, and wanders to the last place he remembers seeing his grown-up. Every time I’ve had to hunt him down I had the help of many people, who saw a frantic mother and pointed me in the right direction. And every time I’ve found him, he was surrounded by concerned adults (and once, a K-9) who desperately wanted to help him (he also knows my phone number, but only meows at strangers). 

The last time I was at the airport, my youngest was 12m. I was sitting outside security with him while the rest of the family came through the gauntlet. The baby wandered a little while I watched. Also, a half-dozen other people watched. I could see their gazes following him, then looking for the parent, seeing me, and smiling in relief. I feel better knowing people are watching out for my kid. If I have anxiety, it’s only about someone calling CPS.

One day we went to CVS and I stood outside while he went in to buy milk.  I was shocked by my level of anxiety as I paced up and down the handicap ramp! But he aced it. Someone asked where his mother was, and he said right outside. That woman came out, asked me if my kid was inside without me, looked extremely confused when I confirmed, and went to her car. 

For his birthday, we are going to let him cross the street to the playground by himself, and I think he will need a Let Grow Kid Card so I stay out of jail. 


Focus on the OTHER parts of the story:

Kenny Felder wrote:

When you are rehashing this story–in your own mind, but especially, when you’re talking it through with your daughter–make sure to go through the WHOLE story. Not just the “You wandered off and I couldn’t find you” part, but also the parts where…

* Your daughter did not just hide in a corner. She found a helpful adult, and reached out, and asked for help. Good move.

* The adult (quite predictably!) turned out to be a helpful human being, as opposed to a random kidnapper or terrorist just hoping for such an opportunity. “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Say hello and find out!

* Fifteen minutes after it started, the whole incident was over.

Your daughter, although scared, took some initiative and solved the problem. She should be congratulated for that. The adults around her served as resources and helpers. And everything was OK. Don’t leave out those parts of the story!

Remember: Scares happen to bubble-wrapped kids, too.

Dixie Dillon Lane wrote:

Hi Katy,

I know just how you feel. 

My reaction to your story is that you did not do something wrong. You were doing something right, and something unforeseen happened. Scares and accidents will happen, whether a kid is free-range or wrapped in bubble wrap and locked in an empty room.

Now you have the opportunity to look at the situation and say, in what way can I better prepare her to handle the unexpected when she is left alone? 

Fear is powerful and can overcome obedience. (to you saying she had to stay put), and for good reason. It needs to be that way so that she will run away if there’s a fire, or let a stranger help her in an emergency, even if you have told her not to move. But it sounds like she needs more direct instruction about this, including what to do if she’s lost.

I hope you will work against your understandable fear so that your takeaway is not “I should not have left her alone” but “She needs some scripts for unusual situations” and “We need to start very small and build back her independence bit by bit — having her sit at a table while I’m ordering coffee, for example.” Ask yourself, what is this fear that we are experiencing for? What is it’s function? What is it trying to teach us? 

Lots of hugs, Katy! You were doing the right thing, not the wrong thing!

Happens to us all!

Mil wrote:

First, Katy you ARE a good and thoughtful mom👍🏾….

I lost my son in Cincinnati airport when he was about 3 1/2yo he’s 28 now. En route to my Dad’s funeral, I was preoccupied w/ reaching gate agent to have son and 7yo daughter’s seats reassigned near me. I forgot I didn’t have his hand. He’d wanted to be a big boy and not hold it. I’d agreed — and forgot. Got to our seatSat down. No son. Panic gripped me. I turned to look for help. F

or visibility, a cockpit crew member had him high in his arms. My horror lasted seconds. We were probably separated about four minutes. 

Even Batman fails.

Mark Headley wrote:

Why isn’t this a reassuring story? … Bruce Wayne falls — including down a well: trapped.

His Dad and later his butler ask “Why?”

“So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Batman wasn’t born a hero. He too needed “Free-Ranging.” My parents let me play in the woods from 3 and 4 — alone, or with friends. They told me not to eat stuff there, but I wanted to put almost anything in my mouth. I came back with blue juice dripping down. My Mom rushed me to an ER, where they rapidly ascertained these were elderberries. Quite safe, fortunately.

And fortunately, their parenting didn’t change much, but I DID learn my lesson… Yes, there will be falls. These shouldn’t all be viewed as utter failures. Rather, they’re opportunities where we learn ever more — including that slips short of perfection generally turn out fine and that not for nothing should we should listen to our parents!

I got lost at the airport at age 6, too!

Liz wrote:

Dear Katy, I got lost in JFK airport as a 6 years old in the early 1980s. I followed my oblivious father and older brother to get the car and lost them in the crowd. I kept going until I found the airport exit, but outside there was an enormous crowd of people holding placards and shouting, and it was sleeting. One of the protesters asked me if I was lost, but I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, so I was too scared to answer. She took me back into the airport to bring me to the lost and found anyway, but before we got there, I saw my grandfather sitting on his suitcase. No one even knew I was missing but me. In the years that passed, I got lost in big cities and tiny country fairs; in the woods in my hometown and in places where I couldn’t even speak the language; traveling with my parents, with camp counselors, with friends. I was scared every time, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. It’s okay to feel scared and still make the decision that the adventures are worth it!

Here’s what happened when MY kid got lost!

Laura wrote:

I think the number one thing for both of you to keep in mind is that you both survived this, you are safe and nothing caused any physical harm. The best thing to do is to remind your child she is safe and that it is okay to look to adults for help… Make sure teach your daughter how to introduce herself to the people around her. Have her practice this WITH you, so if she ever is separated from you again which is bound to happen, she will be comfortable dong this. Once an exchange with the “stranger” has happened they are no longer strangers and that adult can provide help without your daughter being overwhelmed with fear. 

As you and her reach out to people around you, you will get a sense of humanity and that for the most part people really are good and kind-hearted which will really help you brush off these feelings of paranoia.  Of course in any moment like that we can fear the worst, but afterwards, instead of dwelling we need to look at the realities:

How many times in your life have you been abducted or even nearly abducted? Do you have friends whose kids were abducted? I have never even heard of a legitimate abduction since I have become a parent, but a lot of “mysterious man in car talks to kid trying to abduct them” stories that get people all riled up. 

Until, I have some solid proof that this is something I actually need to guard against, I will always let my kids experience safety and freedom in their community and even to an extent, at the airport. 

On that note, when my oldest was about 8 we got off an airplane coming back from Florida with my husband, parents, and my youngest, who was 2. I was absorbed with her making instant friends with another toddler getting off the plane. 

Between 4 adults one would think we would have no problem keeping track of two kids.  But alas, we got out to the main aisle by the bathrooms and realized my oldest was not there.  (This airport was nowhere near as big as Newark, so we were not super concerned, as we didn’t have reason to be yet). I gave my toddler to my husband and he and my dad went to get luggage, then I went back to look for her… I got almost all the way back to the skywalk when I get a text on my phone.  It was a picture of my daughter. She was with the captain in the cockpit!  Sure enough, within minutes, she comes out beaming ear to ear with the rest of the crew asking, “Did you get it?  Did I give them the right number?”  “Yes, sweetie, you sure did!”  There’s no way that would have happened if she would have stayed with us. 

Let Grow’s Advice

Listen to all these wise folks who are telling you the truth: You aren’t bad, your kid is not scarred, your future looks just as rosy as it did before this kerfuffle. Put it behind you, talk a little bit about landmarks and contingency plans, and sally forth! You can do it! And tell us when you do!