The Experiment

Yesterday morning, I had to make a stop at a local department store. I had Sean with me and we were in no hurry, so I took some time to browse, always on the look out for new and unusual ways to blow through my husband’s money.

Sean’s idea of browsing and my idea of browsing are somewhat different.

I like to browse through the racks. He likes to browse in, under and between the racks.

The upside to shopping with a four-year-old, as opposed to shopping with a baby, is that four-year-olds are mobile, no lugging. The downside to shopping with a four-year-old is that they are mobile.

Probably like every mother in the universe, my biggest fear is that I will lose my child in a department store. Truly, is there no thought more terrifying than that?

Consequently, anytime we go shopping, I sternly remind Sean that I need to be able to see him at all times, that hiding in a store is not funny and it is a punishable offense — the punishment so harsh and severe it has not even been thought of yet. I also remind him that if we do get separated, he is to stay put — he is not to go looking for me. And that if anyone offers to take him to find me the answer is simple: NO! I DON’T KNOW YOU!

So yesterday morning I’m looking through the racks and out of the corner of my eye, I see Sean disappear into a rack of skirts. I call to him that I can’t see him and that I need to be able to see him at all times. He does not immediately answer, so I casually call out, “Okay then, see ya later dude,” and then I duck around the corner where I can still see him.

After about 10 seconds, I see him peek out from under the skirts and look both ways. His expression says this: Uh-oh.

I watch him scramble out of the racks and look here and there and this way and that for me. Now his expression says this: UH-oh!

He walks to the main aisle and nonchalantly stands off to the side, eyes darting for my familiar form. He takes two or three steps in each direction. He stops to stand on his tip toes and crane his neck left then right. Nothing. Now his expression says this: UH-OH!!

I can see that he is making a heroic effort to stay cool. But the furrowed brow and nervous eyes belie his outward calm.

If this had happened to me when I was four, I would have done one of two things: Thrown myself on the floor and burst into loud wailing sobbing snotty tears or latched onto the leg of the first passing grown up and then burst into loud wailing sobbing snotty tears. I guess that explains why my mother didn’t worry too much about anyone snatching me.

I stood behind a display for a good three or four minutes watching to see what he would do. And he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He didn’t panic. He stayed put. He was semi-frantically looking for me the whole time, but he stayed put. Good boy.

Honestly, part of me was hoping that he would break down, crying and calling for me. Not for my own ego trip, but because I want him to know the bitter taste of fear on his tongue and because experience is the best teacher.

When he finally spotted me, relief flooded his little face. He ran and jumped into my arms and squeezed me so tight I could barely breathe. I could feel his heart beating through his shirt.  Like a balloon with a tiny pinhole, I could feel the stress draining out of his little body.

“Sean,” I scolded, “When we are in public, I need to be able to see you at all times. Do you understand how important that is?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said hanging his head.

I lifted his chin with my thumb. He eyes were watery with tears he would not release.

“When I call your name, you answer me immediately. Do you understand?”

He nodded.

“Okay then… Were you worried?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I was worried that you had gotten lost,” he said.

And then shaking his finger at me, “I need to be able to see you at all times!”

“Yes you do,” I said.

The experiment was a success. It satisfied my need to know how he would respond in the event that we became separated. And he learned a hard lesson in the safe confines of a retail laboratory.

I pray that it is a lesson on which we will never ever be tested.

32 thoughts on “The Experiment

  1. I need to do something like this with my soon to be 4 year old. I haven’t done it yet, though. I guess I’m just a little afraid that his “never knows a stranger” personality will cause us to both be in danger. Maybe I will do it sometime when we go somewhere it isn’t crowded, although finding a place like that here in dfw is difficult this time of year.
    Good job mom for teaching your son a lesson he’ll not soon forget.


  2. When I was 5, I walked away from my mom to look at a toy around the corner. Naturally things did not progress well. I went back to to car and locked myself in, thinking that mom would have to get in the car to come home. An hour later, my hysterical mother is making her way unsteadily toward the car and spots me. I imagine her relief was a life changing experience. My response? “Hi mom, why are you crying? I just waited for you here.”

    Male insensitivity is apparently an inborn trait.



  3. This reminds me of the story my mother-in-law told about my husband as a little guy. He was always taking off in stores, etc. So his grandma told my MIL to let him go and follow at a distance to teach him this lesson. The two of them followed him the length of the mall; he never became frightened. Too interested in exploring, we surmise, and a sense of independence and confidence from an early age.

    My daughter is a self-confident explorer too, but once she hit 4 and now 5, she gained a healthy sense of caution about getting too far from us in public (thank goodness). She also has, um, quite healthy lungs, so I’ve told her to yell for us if we gets separated. As loud as she can get when she has a tiff with a friend, I think she can manage the volume necessary to scream when she really needs to.


  4. I am so proud of you for doing this and writing about it. A few weeks ago I saw a story about a mom in Wal-Mart whose child was molested only a few rounders away in the clothing section. He was a previous sex offender (violent, I believe), of course, and out looking for more victims. He told the child that he was store security and that he had to check her pockets.

    Another thing I’ve had to talk to my children about is people who take pictures. Anyone who does not have a child with them and tries to take a picture of my child has a confrontation with me. I’ve only had to do this twice: once with a “grandfather” (no kids with him) at the park and once with a “photographer” at another park with a play fountain. Both tried to take pictures of my children.

    There are some really sick people out there; I think people just don’t even realize how many sex offenders are walking around looking for opportunities. Anyway, thanks for talking about this.


  5. I’ve tried that experiment with my 3 1/2 year old. Except with him it’s like .. “Great now I can do what I want!” No look of worries from him. Maybe he needs to be a bit older to understand the lost concept.


  6. We had to keep one hand on the cart when we were little. Kind of like tag. It was “home base” and if your tiny fingers left it just for a moment to look at something else, Mom would “tag” you. Only in this case, being tagged wasn’t a good thing.

    When we got older, you could stop touching the cart, but you had to always be able to see it.


  7. In an age when kids were dropped off in the toy isle and you didn’t worry about your child ending up on a milk carton – my mom use to whistle when she wanted us to come to her. My 40 somthing brother was quite annoyed several years ago when he took Mom to a store and realized she was whistling for him when he had gone off to find his own stuff. LOL

    I taught my kids to stop and call out LOUDLY to me if we got lost from each other and we practiced that call at home. Children are so often too meek to be loud when they need to be. That practice comes in handy too when they need to fend off bullys at school as well. A really LOUD ‘STOP BOTHERING ME’ gets attention from others when a bully would like you to quietly take it.

    Good work AM… he did very well.


  8. good training A.M., kids learn the best and fastest in before they turn 6 years old.

    so whatever good habits, good manners, good behaviour, get it in Sean’s head before he turns 6.

    that’s exactly what I’m doing now for my boys too.


  9. Reminds me of when we took our first little guy (3) on vacation. We REALLY drilled him well on stranger danger. So well that when this sweet little man stopped by in a store to comment on his pretty red hair (with us standing right there holding his hand), he started screaming at the top of his lungs – “Stranger, Stranger!!!”


  10. I lost my two year old in Nordstrom once. He was lightening fast and I didn’t have his stroller with me. I told the Nordy’s people that my little guy was missing and they called the troops…literally. After maybe 30 seconds about 15 people came down the escalator all at once and fanned the store. They found him next door at a hair salon flirting with a hairstylist. I’ve never burst into tears like that in front of strangers, and I’ve never gone shopping without a stroller again!


  11. That was some good parenting! I’m glad he remembered what he should do-I worry about that with my boys even though we go over it. Guess I need to do a “drill” too!


  12. When my children were little I was confused how my normally compliant children would invariably wander off any time we were in a store, even after repeated warnings of “Stay where I can see you”. Finally I sat them down for an in depth investigation of what the problem could be. It eventually became clear that they thought I could see them ANYWHERE (eyes in the back of my head and all that…) so my new instruction became, “Stay where YOU can see ME!…”


  13. Good for you!

    Although, Sean said he was worried YOU were lost. Maybe he thinks he needs to keep tabs on *you* so that nothing happens to you. After all, he knows where *he* is… He’s a thoughtful little guy that way, isn’t he? : -)

    Whose mother had harnesses for her (age 2) and her sister(4) when the three of them flew alone to a foreign ocuntry…


  14. I’m so glad he made the right choice!

    I am in the midst of the “cart struggle” at the grocery store these days. She is at that in between age of 3. I still prefer her in the old fashioned cart, but she would rather use the new “hip carts” with the little video screen on the inside. UGH! Why do they tease our kids with these?

    I would not be complaining if she stayed in there and happily watched Bob the Builder, but no. She would rather open and shut the door as I am cornering the cart – so that it comes to an abrupt and LOUD stop-and then jump out whenever she sees something she likes!

    I have found the solution lately to be- leave her at home with her big sister!

    Great post!


  15. Sounds MUCH like the “test” I gave my children . . . really, this thing only has to happen once and they never forget. We had the exact same conversation with our kids as you did with Sean. We were in the mall and Keira decided to wander around the escalator even though I’d told her no, we had to get going. When she got out of sight, we ran into a store with a huge glass window so we could see everything, but she couldn’t see us. She stood there, made a couple looks around, then started to cry silently. 3 different men offered to help her, and she said No – I don’t know you really loudly. Then a grandmother with her grandchildren offered to help her. That’s when we came out from the store. K has never wandered more than 1/2 an inch from us since then.


  16. When I was 5 or 6, I got lost in Wal-Mart and made a new friend in the toy aisle. I started following her family throughout the store. When I tried to get in the car with them, they took me back in the store and had them call for my mom. She thought I was with my older sisters and they thought I was with my mom.

    Good job in teaching him how to respond!


  17. When my daughter was about 4 she, of course, thought her grandpa hung the moon. We had the following conversation.

    Mom: If you can’t find me at the mall stay where you are and ask a policeman for help. Or a mommy with a little boy or girl.
    Daughter: Or a grandpa. I could stay with a grandpa.
    M: No. A policeman or a mommy.
    D: OR a grandpa. Grandpas are nice.
    M: Only talk to your own grandpa in the mall; not ones you don’t know. Ask a policeman or a mommy.
    D: I’ll ask a grandpa and let him help me.
    D: You don’t like grandpa??

    She STILL has to have the last word.


  18. My mom trained me much the same way when I was a little girl. She once left me in a department store called Cox’s in Waco, Texas (she stood just outside the door on the sidewalk waiting for me). I was not as collected and cool as Sean was – I was frantically running through the aisles and up and down escalators. Fortunately, a security guard discovered me and he took me to my mom, who had apprised him of the situation. It was a lesson I never forgot and one I share with my kids all the time so they can (hopefully) learn from my mistakes.


  19. I used to get lost every SINGLE time that my family went to Lagoon (the amusement park). I still remember sobbing at the Lost and Found, while a rather calm brother/sister duo waited for their parents.

    Good for you for raising half of a calm brother/sister duo instead of the sobbing little blond girl who was longing to curl up in the fetal position. That’s just good mothering.


  20. Ya know, I still remember learning that exact same lesson in the supermarket. I would have been four too. I can still remember the white fear when I realised that I was all alone. All. Alone.
    It’s a good lesson.


  21. We lost Aleks in Sears once when he was 5. I even heard my name over the intercom: “We have a lost child. Carol, come to…”

    ‘Couldn’t be me,’ I thought. ‘MY child is right… Oh SH*T!!’

    Scary stuff. But yeah, when they do the right thing, it is a relief!



  22. This is the exact reason that God saved Sean for all those years until He found the perfect Antique Mommy for a perfectly wonderful little boy. You have an amazing sense for the perfect choices in how to raise him.


  23. I’m so glad Sean is learning this early! Heck, I’m thirty-nine years old and today in Walmart, my mom and I got separated and I spent several minutes looking for her…when I finally spotted her, I felt that balloon with the tiny pinhole letting stress seep away from me. I don’t think you ever get so old that you never don’t want to know where your mother is. 😉

    Especially in Walmart — that’s a crazy place!


  24. Wow, you really put THOUGHT into how you respond. I’m so impressed, truly. Instead of trying to teach my kids I just get aggravated. “Carter. CARTER. CARTER!!! Get OVER here.” I’m thinking you may be on to something. Huh. Teaching your kids stuff. There might be something to this little idea of yours.


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