Help! I Lost My 6-Year-Old at the Airport for 15 Minutes and Now We Are Both Terrified

"It's all my fault for over-estimating her maturity"

Hello Let Grow —

My name is Katy, and I stumbled upon your website yesterday, while searching for stats on how often kids lost at airports get abducted. The thing is, a few days ago my 6-year old daughter got lost (and found) at the Newark airport at the busiest time of the day, and it was all my fault — I overestimated her maturity and ability to wait for me for a few minutes, while I went to buy some food for our flight. 

I read your website all night. That kind of independence is exactly how I was brought up many years ago in one of the Eastern European capitals, and that’s what I’m trying to do for my daughter in California now. So, since she was about five, I’ve been leaving her on her own in public places for several minutes at a time (at her request and always checking with her beforehand, and making sure she was busy with something) — to go to the bathroom, or to pick up food, or to get something from the car, or whatever. Including this most recent trip. 

She would always stay put where I left her.

She always seemed fine and content upon my return, so I didn’t think much this time when I told her that I needed to go and buy some food for us, did she want to go with me, or stay with our bags and wait?

She said that she would wait and play with her iPod. We were sitting in a quieter part of the waiting area, so I thought she would be fine, as always. This time, though, something was different — lots of people? a large space around? she didn’t see exactly where I was going? — and as she told me afterwards, she got extremely scared after about one minute of waiting (I was away for eight minutes, as I later concluded) and went to look for me. In one of the busiest American airports! 

I returned to see my bags — but not my daughter.

When I returned with our food, I found one of the most terrifying pictures in the world for every parent — the bags were there, the girl was not. It happened that a family sitting next to us saw her leaving, but they didn’t stop her, as they thought she saw me. After running around in complete horror and not seeing her, I headed back to the security, found a police officer on my way there and asked for help. At his request, we returned to where she was last sitting, and finally I saw her across the corridor, crying her eyes out, led by a uniformed lady — and we reunited.

She’d gotten scared sitting there on her own, she went to look for me at a cafe where she thought I’d be buying food, but I wasn’t there, so she went through the airport, crying, until a female passenger saw her. This woman asked what happened and brought her to this other lady in uniform, who started searching for me with her. The entire thing, from when she went to look for me until I found her, took maybe fifteen minutes.

I kept picturing her abducted.

This whole experience left both of us completely horrified. I kept seeing images of her being abducted by a stranger pretending to help her find her mom. Now, thanks to your site, the stats that you published and your great sense of humor (thanks in particular for “Gee, I was about to go home with my nice, new Bloomingdale’s shirt. But now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead”), I realize that true child abduction happens very rarely. But these images are hard to forget… And as for her, she is afraid of being left alone for a second, even at home.

How can we stop being scared to death?

So my question to you is, how do we overcome this experience and not turn into a mother and daughter pair who are scared to death to leave each other’s side? I still do believe that “free-range parenting” is the true and right way to raise independent and developmentally mature kids, and at the same time I still don’t understand how I could have so severely misjudged my daughter’s ability to stay put, calmly or otherwise.

Of course we discussed what happened many times since then, I explained the importance of staying in one place to her, as well as how to interact with strangers to avoid the worst. But, I’m not so sure now she will be able to implement it, if needed (for example, I’m absolutely certain I told her not to go anywhere, when I left).  At the same time, nothing bad has happened — she was helped, and she got the experience, but I’m not sure that her trust in the basic safety of this world is strong enough at this point. Mine definitely isn’t.

Thank you so much for reading, and I would really appreciate any words of wisdom. And, thanks for everything that you are doing.

Best regards,

Katy

READERS: Lenore here. I wrote back to Katy and will publish my response in the next installment. But first, I’d like to hear from you. Please email your advice to [email protected] and I’ll publish some of it along with my own suggestions. Thanks!