WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR CHILD AT THE STATE FAIR

​Is one really lost if they don't know they are lost?  That is a question I have returned to again and again after a recent incident at the State Fair of Minnesota.  

As Minnesotans living in the heat of Texas, the annual explosion of Facebook images at the end of August from the Great Minnesota Get-together causes me and my wife severe pains of nostalgia.  This year we remedied that with a trip back to Minnesota.

We spent the weeks before our arrival making plans to attend the fair with friends, just like in the old days.  Unlike the old days, we would be making this trip with friends . . . and children.  Among the six adults there were eight children ranging in age from 18 months to 8 years to keep track of.     Since my brood accounted for half the children present we were playing zone defense.  This is not uncommon, but the degree of difficulty increases when you consider the unfamiliar and expansive nature of the terrain and the 180K people in attendance that day.

At the start of the day, I recognized the chance of losing one of my three boys and we all made plans for what to do in the event this happened.  My oldest, in particular, is super independent and one of those kids who is always running ahead, whether it be at the mall, the trail leading into the Grand Canyon, or even the dentist (we have an awesome dentist, but still).  I specifically pulled him aside when we got to the grounds to remind him where to go and reminded him to stay put if he lost contact with us at any point.

Skip ahead to the end of the day. We are watching the tail end of the midday parade head off into the crush of humanity and packing up to start back to the bus that will take us to where we left our car.  Sawyer, our oldest, tells Sarah that he is going to start walking.  She calmly tells him "No," asks for him to wait, and returns to getting the 18-month-old buckled into the stroller.

When she turns around Sawyer is nowhere to be seen.  Assuming he just started walking down the street we start heading that way.  When we get to the end of the street where he should be waiting for us, like countless time throughout the day, he is nowhere to be seen.  I am annoyed; Sarah is fearfully annoyed; and his younger brothers are angry because they want to play baseball with their uncle waiting at home (they wanted to leave him at the Fair).

We divide and conquer, another dad and I looping in the directions we think Sawyer might be headed. Two moms head back to the meeting spot and Sarah heads to the police station to report a missing child.  

After an hour and a half of looking, I finally locate him at the very bus stop we arrived at earlier in the day.  This was over a mile away and involved navigating the entire length of the fairgrounds.  Obviously, I was relieved to have found Sawyer, but he was not the least bit bothered by being separated from everybody else for over an hour.

​When he couldn't find us, he returned to the designated meeting spot and didn't see anybody so figured we all headed to the buses.  He remembered the Skyway was located where we came in, so he just followed the tracks through the 180,000 people the entire length of the fairground and out the gate.

He reasoned "I knew you wouldn't leave me, and you would have to get on a bus eventually so I just came here and waited."  I have to admit part of me was proud of his independence, but he also inconvenienced everybody else and people were genuinely afraid for him.

The next day we talked through the whole event and recapped what had happened and what choices he could have made differently.  I did this with his brothers present. Although they are unlikely to get lost, if they did accidentally get separated, they are also not nearly as independent. They needed to hear how Sawyer solved problems and kept himself safe. They also needed to know what he could have done differently.

Independence is a double edged sword. We want our kids to be independent eventually, but how much is too much?  Sawyer never got upset because he never considered himself lost, even if the rest of us did.  As parents we are continually given chances to help our kids gain confidence and independence that will serve them well as they grow up, but sometimes we wish it wasn't in such stressful situations.

About Author

A. Minor Baker is the husband of Sarah and father of four, currently residing in Austin, Texas. When he's not working as a research assistant at Texas State University or riding his bicycle, he can be reached for question or comment at minorbaker@gmail.com.  
To hear Dr. Baker and Josh-the-Dad talk with Minor, click this link.