The zoo on a July afternoon isn't an ideal place to lose a child. A few years ago, I somehow lost track of my daughter. She was about 9 years old, and it was a hot, crowded day - a real zoo. One hour and lots of panicky moments later, we recovered her. Tear-stained, she was propped up on a stool licking an ice cream cone provided by a caring employee. I experienced all of the emotions a parent goes through when a child becomes lost and found: relief, joy, and annoyance.

Keeping tabs on our kids at the mall, grocery store, zoo, and other public places isn't a walk in the park. Inevitably, parents get distracted and kids can wander off. It helps to teach your little ones some guidelines:

Ask for help

When lost in a store or other public place, it's OK to ask for help. Look for someone in a uniform, wearing a nametag, etc. For example, point out that the employees at Target wear red shirts and badges.

Don't go alone

Accompany young children to public restrooms. Perpetrators can hide in stalls, ready to grab their next victim. Scary stuff!

Get loud

Teach your children to scream, kick, punch, and fight back relentlessly if ever grabbed by a stranger. In most cases, the perpetrator won't want to deal with a noisy, combative child and will just leave.

Know the number

These days, mom and dad are just a tap away on a cellphone. Better to have your kids memorize your phone number in the case of an emergency, when they may not have access to their own phone's contact list.

Stick with a buddy

When shepherding around a large group, assign children partners. Let them know that they have an important job: they are responsible for their partners. Hopefully this will help shift their focus from themselves to their companions.

Home base

Come up with a meeting place in the event someone gets lost. A visible landmark works best - for example, a Ferris wheel at the fair or the fountain at the mall.

Hug a tree

Teach your kids that it's better to stay put if they become separated from the group. This is of utmost importance in an outdoor setting - when on a hike or campout, for example. Kids who wander typically distance themselves even further. Also, carrying a whistle can be a lifesaver in the outdoors.

Secure belongings

Remind your kids to keep track of their personal belongings. Wear purses or backpacks securely and tuck wallets or phones into deep, protective pockets.

Helping your children be smart and safe in public will pay large dividends toward your sanity.

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