Let me tell you this story of what happened the other day. While we were out, my son disappeared from my sight for about 10 minutes. I tell you, not because it’s entertaining, or to share my experience as a warning that “something like this could happen to you someday“, but because when this happened, I didn’t react the way I thought I would. It seems like my AP skills went out the window, and I’m trying to rationalize that. For a few moments, my child was lost, and I lost myself as a parent.
One second he was there, and literally the second after I stooped to pick up my bag he wasn’t. We were in the locker room of our health club, just after a swim, getting ready to leave & go to lunch. Did he run ahead to wait for us? Sometimes he runs to wait by the basketball courts, but when I got there, he wasn’t.
Did he go into the men’s locker room? Sometimes he thinks it’s funny to run in there because he knows I can’t follow. My daughter was with us, and while I don’t think she should go in the men’s locker room anymore, she is under age 6 and technically allowed in. So she went through the men’s locker room, looking for him, calling his name, checking the showers. No brother.
She and I walked around downstairs, checking places he might have gone to watch exercisers or wait for us. With still no luck, we went upstairs through the restaurant, thinking that maybe he assumed we were going up there for lunch after swimming. Nope.
OK, now I am really annoyed. I had the timing of our morning worked out perfectly. I had a meeting to get to—an API meeting, actually, of which I am the leader, no less!—and now we were going to be late. All because my 4 year old decided it would be a good time to play hide and seek.
I have my daughter check the men’s locker room again. Is he seriously not in there? That is his favorite game to play! As I stood outside the door listening to her call his name over and over, for the first time, a slight sense of worry began to creep into my mind. Until this point, I hadn’t actually been worried about his safety, but now, as I had checked and rechecked the places he would be, now it was there.
I headed up to the front lobby and asked a lady at the desk if she had seen a little boy walk out. She said no, but the club has an emergency code they could issue so that all exits would be covered. “Would you like me to issue it?”
Should I? Could he really have completely disappeared so quickly? It was one second! Are we at the point in our search to turn it into a bigger deal by issuing the emergency code? I guess so. I’m still hesitant that it is even necessary, but how can I say no? No, please don’t take that extra safety precaution for my missing son.
As I tell her to go ahead an issue the announcement, I am wondering what the code is for a lost child; how the staff would have decided during their security training what word could be easily remembered for a lost child. Just then her voice rang over the loud speakers throughout the club, “Attention staff, we have a code ABC.” Oh. That makes sense.
So staff members were now moving to station themselves at every exit throughout the health club. I appreciated that, but I still didn’t think he left the building. I felt sure he could not possibly be any further than the locker room area. As soon as Ms. Emergency Code came around the desk to start directing the staff, I heard her say, “Is that him?” I looked up and saw the small figure of a boy—my boy—peeking around the edge of…wait for it…the MEN’S LOCKER ROOM door.
I knew what I was “supposed” to do in a situation like this, and I know that what I actually did, did not match up with that ideal. I thought I was supposed to run up to him, give him a hug, tell him, “I was worried about you!” with only concern and love in my voice. Hug him, hold him, tell him I’m so glad he’s safe. Though I was relieved to see him, I did not run to him like I always thought a mom of a missing child should upon their reunion. I was still furious and upset, and now that I had him again, I wanted nothing more than to get out quickly and calmly.
I walked towards him, and he walked towards me. I did not get down and hug him. I took his hand and said, trying to sound casual (mostly for the benefit of others around me) yet incredulous, “Where were you?” To which he replied, “I was playing hide and seek!” Neither one of us had gotten to the point of being genuinely scared. Of all the places to disappear, our experience happened in a cushy private health club where we need codes and cards to do anything, and where there’s a large staff caring enough to station themselves around all of the exits, many of whom know my family by name. Which is probably why he felt safe enough to run on without me anyway.
Because of this, the main emotion that had been circulating in me throughout the whole search was anger. Don’t get me wrong, after about 5 minutes of searching, I was starting to worry. He wasn’t turning up in the few places I expected him to be, so, yes, I had worrisome thoughts running through my head. But I’d say, in those moments, my feelings broke down like this:
- Anger: 80%
- Annoyance: 15%
- Fear: 4%
- Embarrassment: 1%
When he finally showed up, I KNEW I wasn’t supposed to yell at him for what he put me through. That would be selfish. And it’s not like he intended to put me through the wringer. Berating him for playing a “game” that he thought was fun would only make him feel bad for something he was doing unintentionally; for being himself.
But the yelling instinct was there. And because of the 1% embarrassment I was experiencing, I didn’t want to express myself in the main lobby of the health club. Now that he was recovered, I wanted to get out fast, and hopefully calm down before I said anything I knew I shouldn’t.
I thanked Code ABC Lady and apologized to her. That was also the 1% embarrassment speaking. She was, of course, not put out at all, and just happy that he was back with me. I grabbed my son’s hand and we walked quickly out of the club, my daughter trailing a few steps behind.
My emotions came spilling out at the car when I opened my son’s door and told him to “get in” and my voice cracked. He looked up at me and instantly knew I was not feeling my usual self. Not even my usual “mom’s-upset” self. This was much more, and I needed him to know it.
The tears came fast and furious as I sat in the driver’s seat and waited for him to buckle himself. I was crying hard, and through the sobs I was yelling at him, “I didn’t know where you were! You weren’t there; you were gone! We were calling you and calling you, and you weren’t answering!” Throughout the whole ordeal I had been so angry, but the words that came out now revealed my true feelings; I love my son, and I had been afraid.
My son said nothing, which is unusual. Normally he protests, talks back, explains, justifies, and whines, trying to defend himself. But now, in the midst of my sobbing, he could tell the seriousness of what happened.
After I had calmed down (not even close to fully, but enough to drive), I realized that with all of my knowledge of AP and positive discipline—how a parent “should” respond in this situation—I honestly don’t think I could have reacted any differently. I feel awful for being so angry with him. Here I am, supposedly knowledgeable on positive parenting, but when the “moment of truth” arrived, being positive was not foremost in my mind. Was I angry because he was in the men’s locker room the whole time, which I was sure of all along? If he had reappeared from somewhere else in the club, or had actually been lost or scared, would I have been as upset, or just relieved?
I don’t know those answers, and I never want to find out. I know that I don’t love the way I handled things; I want to be a better parent than that. My emotions were running so strong that all I could think of was making things “right” again, in any way necessary. I don’t plan to dwell on this; I am right back on the positive parenting path with a new understanding of the instinct that drives parents to treat their children less-than-ideally. It happens. Children are human, and they act in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Well, we are human, too; complete with all of the instincts that go with it.
Kelly is an API Leader and a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator in Portland, Oregon. She blogs at Parenting From Scratch.