When Garrett was lost it was different. It happened last year, mid-way through second grade. He was eight. In the bustle of children after the release bell, I chatted with other moms pushing strollers on the front lawn of the elementary school, knelt to admire Julie's new puppy, paused to check with Susan about the PTG meeting, while sending each of my children in turn to the playground to wait for me. I thought he heard my instructions. By the time I made it to the playground myself, realized he wasn't there, and hurried with my heart pounding back to the office, he sat stiffly in a chair. Scared but fighting it. His face set against tears.
He shifted easily from fear to pride when I praised him for doing exactly the right thing. He found the adults in charge and stayed with them. He was exactly where I went to look. Perfect. His smile was huge when I gushed to his dad, brothers and sister over how well he handled the situation.
But I knew the minute I saw Nate's puffy, pale face that there was no lesson in independence here. He is only five and I didn't lose him at a familiar school with adults he trusted. I left him hiding in a bush at a small, local water park during an intense game of hide and seek. In my defense, it was late, I had a lot of stuff to pack and carry, and I had my five kids plus an extra friend. I admit I walked out the front gate before I realized I was short a child.
"No one looked for me," he sobbed accusingly at the teenage lifeguard's side when I ran into them headed toward me on the sidewalk that weaves under the water slides. "I hid but you all didn't find me."
His eyes spoke the level of betrayal loud and clear. No amount of praise was going to convince him he had handled the situation on his own.
"I'm so sorry, but I'm so proud of you for finding a lifeguard. That's the right thing to do."
"I didn't. I just cried. He found me."
I was lost. At a loss for words. No one is equal to every moment with children. He wasn't ready and I let him down. Some days there's a beautiful lesson in their own abilities hidden in an accident and some days you just forgot your five-year-old hiding in a bush at a busy water park and you're left counting on others to make it right.
Counting heads a little more carefully before we leave anywhere doesn't hurt either.