About a month ago, Arlo reached a certain milestone (it happens to everyone, right?) He was that small, sad, sobbing child, all alone in a big shop. A child who had become lost.
I was perhaps giving a little too much of my attention to the bedding section of John Lewis. (so many different types of pillows – minefield!), and perhaps giving Arlo a wider radius than I had previously by letting him run a circuit around the furniture and bedding sections.
Anyway, a little more time than usual passed between laps of his self-decided circuit, and he didn’t answer when I called out to him. I called louder. No answer. I pushed Rory in his buggy around the circuit Arlo had been running, calling his name. No answer. I checked the sofas, knowing that his favourite thing to do is to sit on them all, “trying them out”. Not there. I systematically walked up and down the whole shop, looking and listening out for him. Nothing.
When I later retold the story to Sam, he asked “How could you not be panicking at this stage??” It wasn’t a department store, it was a small standalone shop on a retail park, there was nowhere else for him to wander. We had become separated, and I knew the most likely scenario was that he was in there somewhere, hopefully with a member of staff – who were my next port of call.
On my route to locate a staff member, I finally heard his sad little voice, and looked up to see him standing with a security guard – just reaching to put out a call on his walkie talkie.
He couldn’t get any proper words out for a full couple of minutes. And I felt incredibly guilty. It was a pretty small deal in the grand scheme of things, we were separated for a maximum of five minutes, but in ‘losing’ him, I had compounded his worst fear. For months, the prevailing theme of his bad dreams is me leaving him somewhere. “You got on a train without me”, “You left me there”, etc, etc. He had never been lost in his whole life, yet clearly, abandonment was playing on his mind. And now I had made his fear a reality.
There has been one big positive that has come out of this situation. Arlo getting lost has opened up a conversation with him, without the concept being too abstract for Arlo. He has a direct experience to draw upon when we talk about ‘what to do when you get lost’.
Talking to young children about getting lost can be challenging. You want them to understand that it’s important, without causing unnecessary anxiety and inhibiting their eagerness to explore the wider world. I am also wary of using the “Don’t talk to strangers” line that was so prevalent when I was young. So, I talk to Arlo about safer strangers and safer buildings. I tell him that if he needs help or is lost, the best person for him to approach is a mummy. I tell him he can also talk to the people working at the shop, and he knows he can find them at the till. I tell him to never EVER leave the shop, even if a grown up is telling him to, because mama will be in the shop looking for him, and will know where to find him.
There are some useful tips on talking to children about getting lost on the Netmums site. Obviously, approaching the conversation with your child is going to vary massively depending on age and ability. The younger the child, the harder the concept might be to grasp, and they will likely not be able to remember things such as mobile numbers, etc.
I find a visual reference really useful in helping three year old Arlo to understand the situations we are talking about, and so we have been watching this video. It is aimed at slightly older children, and although parts of it went over Arlo’s head, I’d say it was definitely useful for him to watch, and he was definitely able to understand the basics about approaching a ‘safer stranger’ or a ‘safer building’. I plan to keep showing him this video every once in a while in the hopes that he retains the information and can use it to stay safe and be better prepared in the event that he gets lost.