One of the many fears you have as a parent is losing track of your child in a large crowd. Last week, I attended the Iowa State Fair. At one point, both Peanut (age 5) and Squeak (3) got away from me.
Here’s what’s odd: Peanut was only missing for two minutes, but was by far the more frightening of the incidents. Squeak was gone for more than five, but the more I searched for him, the calmer I became.
Let me explain…
Losing track of my kid, episode 1
I lost Peanut on the first of three days at the fair.
Our first stop after arriving was the KidFind booth, where I got each kid a bracelet with my name and phone number on it (I follow my own advice; this was something I recommended in my Iowa State Fair Survival post from last year).
A few hours later, we were walking down a hill, from a free entertainment stage to a playground. Peanut was on my left, and I was pushing Squeak in the stroller. My mother was on my right.
We were about halfway to the playground when my mother peeled off to hit the nearest restroom. I told her we’d be at the playground and to meet us there.
My older sister was a few steps ahead of me with her gaggle of kids, and she arrived at the playground first, parking her stroller. I placed mine next to hers, then realized Peanut was nowhere to be found.
“Um, did Peanut run ahead of me?” I asked, glancing around the playground for her bright pink dress.
My sister furrowed her brow. “I don’t think so. I haven’t seen her.”
My stomach dropped. “Shit. Shit shit shit.”
As I began scanning the playground and the entire area around it, my sister gasped and pointed behind me.
“There she is! Up on top of the hill!” she shouted.
I turned and looked. What I saw broke my heart. Peanut was standing in the middle of the street, turning frantically in a circle, sobbing. She’d run a few steps in one direction, then turn and run back the other way. She was freaking out.
“Watch him!” I shouted to my sister as I took off running.
I sprinted up the hill as fast as I could, body-checking some old man on my way. Sorry buddy, panicked mom, coming through!
I glanced away from Peanut for a split second as I navigated around a stroller, and when I looked back at her, she’d disappeared. I started to panic. Where did she go?!
When I reached the location where I’d seen her spinning around, I spotted her a few yards away; she’d gone behind a nearby building. She saw me and ran toward me, sobbing, and fell into my arms like I was the last person on earth. For the next 15 minutes, as we returned to the playground and sat calmly on a bench, she didn’t let up on her death grip around my neck. She was not letting Mommy out of her sight.
Peanut explained that she’d seen some steps off to our right that looked like fun. She had jumped up and down the steps a few times, then looked up and realized Mommy was gone. But then she saw Grandma, and took off running after her. Unfortunately, Grandma disappeared behind a building (that’s where the entrance to the bathroom was), and when Peanut followed her, all she found was a bunch of doors—and she had no idea which one Grandma had taken. That’s when she’d run back to where she last saw me, and started to cry when I wasn’t there.
Mommy can relate
I knew exactly how Peanut felt.
I was around 7 years old when I got lost at the Iowa State Fair myself.
It happened in the Varied Industries building. I’d left my group—my sisters, cousins, dad, and uncle—to go back to a booth where my sisters had gotten some cool trinket. When I turned back to where I’d last seen them, they were gone. I started to cry, and a nice woman approached me.
“Are you lost, honey?” she asked kindly.
A few seconds later, my uncle appeared. He’d realized I was gone and had begun looking for me. I was never so happy to see someone in my entire life. I was lost for maybe a minute, but it’s one of the clearest memories I have from my childhood visits to the State Fair.
In short, I could relate to Peanut’s panic. It’s a horrible feeling for a kid. And now I was feeling it from the other end: the parent’s end.
Also a horrible feeling.
Losing track of my kid, episode 2
The next day, I lost Squeak.
On the fairgrounds there’s a play structure shaped like a train. It has an engine and a single boxcar behind it. Built a few decades ago by the Clearfield Lions Club, it’s about 30 feet long from front to back, 6 feet wide, and 12 feet tall. It’s made of thick beams of wood, and is solid as a rock.
Kids LOVE it, and if I were a kid, I would love it too. It’s an amazing replica of a train and is a treasure trove of climbing and playing.
Parents, especially those with toddlers, HAAAAAAATE the train. It’s a nightmare to keep track of your kids when they’re playing on it. The structure has four exits: off the front, out the back, and halfway down the train’s length on both sides. You can only see two exits at a time, no matter where you position yourself.
(And even that is a generous estimate; there’s no easy way to stand far back from the train due to what’s immediately around it, so most of the time you are only able to closely watch one of the four exits).
On our second day at the fair, around late morning, Squeak asked to go to the “train park.” My mom was watching a magician with Peanut, so I told her to stay put while I took Squeak.
Before setting him free, I said, “Squeak, there’s one rule on the train, and that is DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIN. Do you understand?”
He seemed distracted but nodded yes and took off into the guts of the train, which was teeming with kids.
Every 30 to 60 seconds, I would check for his bright orange T-shirt. I could see it through the cracks between the wood beams, and if I didn’t see it right away, I would do a little Marco Polo trick: “Hey Squeaky!” to which he would respond, “HELLO!”
My mother approached with Peanut, and I watched her climb into the train, too. We chatted about nonsense for a few minutes, until she said, “Where’s Squeak?”
I scanned for his shirt inside the train. “Hmm… he was just here.”
I decided to Marco Polo him. “HEY SQUEAKY,” I shouted. I got no reply.
“Shit,” I said to her.
Mom immediately headed right to circle the train that way, while I ran around the train to the left, poking my head inside as I went, looking for him.
We met up at the other side, no Squeak in sight. I started to panic.
“Mom, go check the play structure over there,” I directed, and she took off toward a second playground about 20 yards away. I scanned the train for my daughter.
“Peanut! Come here, right now. I need you to stay with me while I look for Brother.”
She must have sensed my panic, because she immediately jumped down and took my hand.
I took another lap around the train, this time with a wider distance from it.
A woman ran up to me. “Ma’am, are you looking for a little boy in an orange T-shirt?”
I nodded eagerly. “Yes, where is he?!”
“He was on the sidewalk going in a circle, and we could tell he was lost. I tried to talk to him but he ran, so my husband is following him. He went that way!”
She pointed north, down the hill from the train.
“Here, I’ll call my husband and see where they are,” she pulled her phone out, but I couldn’t wait. I headed in the direction she pointed, dragging Peanut behind me, who was pumping her legs fast to keep up.
I’d only made it a few yards when a State Fair employee stopped me. “Are you looking for a little boy in an orange T-shirt?”
“Yes, where is he?!” I near-shouted at her.
“I haven’t actually seen him but someone said he went that way!”
I was already moving past her, down the hill.
“He had a couple of people following him!” she hollered as I continued on.
I barreled through the crowded sidewalk, scanning the crowd for a little blonde boy with an orange shirt. Nothing. There were people everywhere, packed onto the sidewalk and filling the street in front of me.
But surprisingly, I wasn’t losing my shit. I knew he had an adult with him—maybe even two adults—who knew he was lost. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t let anything bad happen to him. This helped temper my panic, a lot.
I was already about 50 yards down the hill from the train when I saw a mom standing with a stroller, a couple of kids close around her. She was staring at me, then stopped me.
“Little boy, orange T-shirt?” she asked.
“YES, WHERE?!” I demanded.
She pointed straight ahead. “He went down around to the front of the agriculture building,” she directed.
“The FRONT?!” I asked with surprise.
He’d already made it a long way from the train, and it appeared I wasn’t gaining on him.
The mom nodded. “Yes, the front. Go around to that entrance! My friends are following him!”
So now he had at least two, and maybe three, adults on his trail. Squeak was amassing quite the audience.
I followed her instructions, going around to the ag building front entrance. As I approached it, poor Peanut still running to keep up with me as I held her by the hand, an older couple darted out of the building, waving their arms over their heads.
I knew instinctively they were looking for me. I yelled in their direction, jumping up so I could be seen over the crowd: “Little boy, orange T-shirt!”
They nodded vigorously and waved me toward them.
As we met on the sidewalk and walked together into the building, the woman spoke quickly. “He came right in here, he was crying but we were all afraid to pick him up,” she said. “My friends are following him.”
We entered the building and I stopped, looking around. We were only a few yards from the famous Butter Cow sculpture, an area always jammed with people trying to get a glimpse at the work of art. I started to panic again. How was I ever going to find them in all these people?
The woman was still at my side. “He was right here… Wait! There he is! My friend has him!”
She pointed into the crowd and I followed her gaze. There he was, crying, in the arms of a tall grandpa-type who was walking toward us.
Squeak gets an entourage
The grandpa-type wasn’t alone. Squeak had SIX ADULTS with him in a little staff, like he was Kanye West. Except in this case, little Kanye was crying and kept repeating, “I runned away like George.”
The grandpa handed Squeak to me.
“Are you okay, buddy?” I asked him, hugging him tight. He continued to whimper about Curious George, and I cursed that stupid F-ing monkey under my breath. WHY did today’s episode have to be about George running away?! What a horrible role model.
I looked up from my little boy at Squeak’s followers, which had not dispersed. There were two men, both dad types, one of whom was the first person to begin tracking him. Then there were two couples, both grandparent-age. One of the women was tearful, her eyes full as she watched us reunite.
She put a hand to her mouth.
“This same thing happened to my daughter when she was little, in the Varied Industries building,” the grandma explained. “It was the worst experience, and terrifying for both of us.”
I nodded and told her it had happened to me too, in the same building.
“Thank you all, so much, for helping him. I really can’t thank you enough,” I said, genuinely grateful for all of them.
They nodded, their faces full of concern. The two grandparent couples still seemed reluctant to leave us, but I thanked them again and said I needed to go meet back up with Grandma.
Panic, but not quite as bad as it could’ve been
A moment later my mom called me and we met up at the corner of the building, where I retold her the story of Squeak and his cult following.
She couldn’t believe how far he’d made it—over 250 yards from where he’d started, in a massive crowd.
Later that day, when I recounted Squeak’s escapade to my sister, she asked how I had felt through it all.
“Were you crying? I would have been crying,” she said.
But actually, I wasn’t. I had been more scared and panicked the day before, when I lost Peanut, because in those moments as I sprinted up the hill, I knew she was completely alone and terrified, and nobody was looking out for her. Within seconds of realizing Squeak was gone, I knew he had an adult on his trail that wasn’t going to leave him.
The kindness of strangers is a wonderful thing
Only one part of the whole adventure was odd.
Back when I was a kid, spotting a lost three-year-old who couldn’t communicate his name (Squeak is still hard to understand if you don’t know him) would’ve meant you scooped up the kiddo and helped him get where he needed to go, whether that was back to his mother or to Security so they could call his parents.
But when Squeak was lost, everyone was afraid to pick him up. That’s why he had such a big entourage. Nobody knew what to do, but it seemed like everyone understood an unspoken rule: don’t touch him. So they followed him instead.
I owed a debt of gratitude to the grandpa who eventually did grab him. Squeak was wandering into the throng of people at the butter cow exhibit and would’ve quickly been lost, his adults unable to follow. The man who picked him up did exactly the right thing. I’m just surprised no one did it sooner.
Why were they so afraid? They probably remembered this headline from earlier this year: “Good Samaritan bullied, beaten, and called a kidnapper after helping lost child.” (Seriously. Read the story. It’s awful what happened to this father, who was beaten and eventually run out of town with death threats, all because he was trying to help a lost girl find her parents. In this case, it was the psychotic father of the little girl who wouldn’t believe the police and the Good Samaritan when they said he wasn’t trying to kidnap the girl. The father started a social media campaign to shame the Good Samaritan, which resulted in the death threats, because people never check a source before assuming everything they read on the internet is true. UGH, PEOPLE SUCK.)
I’ve never cared if someone touched my kids, so long as they were doing it out of kindness and for good reasons. If my kid cuts in line for the bouncy house and tries to skitter inside out of turn, by all means, pick him up and set him back on the ground. I not only don’t mind, I would prefer it. (But if you put your hands on my children out of anger? I will go medieval on your ass.)
Nobody wanted to touch Squeak, and for that reason, I think he got a lot farther than he would have if the same thing happened years ago.
Employing the Sharpie
After the shock had worn off, I went on a hunt for a Sharpie. I wrote my phone number up both kids’ arms with two-inch numbers, lest they get lost again. Squeak had been wearing his KidFind bracelet on his ankle, but little good that did when he wouldn’t let anyone close enough to see it. This was double safe, like a belt and suspenders.
“It happens to all of us.”
My friends were great at comforting me afterward. They reminded me that this happens to everyone at some point or another. I imagine it does. But that doesn’t make the experience any less nerve-wracking.
Next year, I’ll Sharpie both kids with my number from the get-go, in addition to the KidFind bracelets. I’ve been reiterating the #1 Rule of the Train for the past week, and even Squeak brings it up out of the blue. Earlier today we were playing with letters when he told me, “Mommy, the rule of the train is to NEVER LEAVE THE TRAIN!”
(Atta boy, Squeak.)
Losing kids comes with the territory
I’m not sure there’s a way I can completely avoid the risk of losing my kids in busy public places like the Iowa State Fair. Short of leashing my kid (which I wouldn’t do, both because I think it’s a little odd and because Squeak wouldn’t stand for it), it’s just something I have to deal with. It goes hand-in-hand with how I choose to parent.
I give my kids a certain amount of independence—freedom to make their own choices, without existing under the shadow of my hover. I’m no free-range parent, but neither am I a helicopter. I want my kids to grow up to be independent, confident, and be able to find their way out of difficult situations. That includes coping with the awful fear that comes with losing your parents at the fair.
We—my kids and I—both hate every minute of these experiences. One thing is certain, though: we all learn something from them.