Last week while we were all standing around chatting at soccer practice, one of the moms noticed a boy sitting alone under the shade of a tree, crying. None of us knew him, or had even seen him before. She watched for a minute to see what he would do, or if anyone else moved toward him as if to claim him, but when nobody did, she approached him quietly. "Are you okay, buddy? Do you need some help?"
Turns out his mom had dropped him off for baseball practice, but at the wrong school. There wasn't even any baseball practice going on at this location, only soccer. He didn't have a phone, he didn't see his coach or any of his friends, and he was lost. A third grader, alone and with no idea what to do next.
So we called the number he knew for his mom, but got no answer. I called the baseball recreation league (it was still open,) thinking they would be able to pull up his record and maybe have some additional emergency contact numbers, a coach's name and number, or hell, just know at which school he was supposed to be, and one of us could have driven him there (where then the coach could have reached mom.) They indeed did pull up his record, but the only number listed was the same one he had given us, and the system couldn't pull up the team without knowing the name of the coach. (Don't get me started on how antiquated their database is if it's unable to be searched by multiple strings.)
At that point, the recreation league said they appreciated our help, but they had to call the police. So they did, and within just a few minutes two very nice officers were chatting with the boy and showing him around their cool car and cool gadgets and finally mom pulled up, apologetic and very upset, having received voice messages from my friend, the rec league, and finally, the police. All was good.
There's a couple of issues here. I could almost see, as hectic as all of our lives can be, how one could drop the wrong kid in the wrong place or at the wrong time - often practice locations change at the last minute around here due to muddy fields or rainout games or whatever. I have dropped my kids off at practice before, and then kept on going, with errands to run or another kid to deliver somewhere else. But I have never done so without laying an eyeball on the coach or at least another parent, an ADULT, that I know. This particular school is set up so that you cannot even see the baseball diamond from the parking lot, this woman had no idea whether there was someone there her kid knew, she just let him get out of the car on the fly, and then kept on going to the next thing, not planning to return until an hour and a half later, assuming everything would be fine. Secondly, she left a nine year old boy alone at the wrong school who didn't know his coaches name, couldn't name any other teammates, and didn't know his father's cellphone number, only moms.
If you're gonna be a Free-Range Parent, and I do consider myself one, you have to have a backup plan. You have to actually talk through some emergency management scenarios. It doesn't have to be a scary conversation, you're not trying to instill fear, you're trying to instill confidence. My kids know not only my cell phone number, but also their dad's. They know their grandparent's first and last names (who live locally and often help with dropping off and picking up.) They know the first and last names of their coaches, and several other kids and parents on each team they play on. My nine year old carries a phone in which is programmed every adult I could think of who would help him in a pinch. I have the cell phone numbers of all of their coaches, and about half the other moms on each team they play on. You have to be able to communicate.
But most of all, you have to have the right expectations. You have to know what your kid can handle, should some crazy emergency come up. What if the weather suddenly changed during a practice? (This is Kansas, after all.) What if you have to use the bathroom? What if another child gets hurt, or God forbid, what if the adult coach gets hurt and no other adults are around?
My point is I can't see my kids getting stuck in any of those crazy situations, but we talk about them just the same.
I could say I didn't judge that mom for her ditzy error, but I totally did. All of us standing there did. We could see how something like that could happen, but yet, we couldn't really imagine it happening, because you just can't be that lax, and not have a backup plan.
I say all this, as someone who lost a child at DisneyLand once, for what is still the five most terrifying moments of my entire life. My oldest was six at the time, got distracted by a dude on a unicycle, while the rest of us kept walking thinking he was right behind me. And then he looked up and we were gone.
Five panicked, backtracking minutes later my cellphone rang, a Colorado area code number I didn't recognize. It was a woman, a mom, who noticed my son looking around for someone to help him, and her Mommy Radar went off. He gave her my number, and I was still on the phone with her as my husband found them. We had told him, if something happens while we are here, you find someone with a uniform that says DisneyLand, or a namebadge, or a security officer. This woman spotted him and acted, just as my friend did up at soccer practice, as mommies do.
It takes a village, people, that's not a lie. But there's a big difference between Free Range Parenting and negligence, and sometimes that difference is being a space cadet with no plan. Don't just think your kid will know what to do in a crisis - know, because you've talked about it.
And for Pete's sake, answer your damn phone! Even if you don't know the number, when your kids are out of your sight, just answer it.