As the holiday season gears up the stores can go from almost barren to overcrowded in a matter of hours.  With all these people it becomes harder to keep track of things: that gift for Uncle Bob, where the car is parked, where little Timmy and Jane wandered off to.  It’s this last one that can turn into a potential nightmare for a family because it’s not just other shoppers engaged in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, but also child predators.

Crowded, busy, malls and department stores make a child predator’s “shopping” so much easier.  Like any predator they count on distractions and the presumption of safety along with a child’s general tendency to wander and trust to separate them from their parents and everyone else.  To prevent such a thing there are several safety precautions that a parent who’s shopping with their children can and should take (especially during the holiday season):

Watch Your Kids

Pretty obvious, I’m sure, but if you go to a mall you’d be amazed how many parents turn their backs on their kids or leave a child to wait while they run elsewhere to get/do something.  It’s understandable in the rush to get things done – leaving the little one to look at the toys is easier than dragging them somewhere they don’t want to go – but it’s a risk that really isn’t worth taking.

Never assume a child’s going to stay somewhere while you go pay or look for something; also never assume a child will automatically follow you as you continue shopping.  To keep from having to constantly ensure the tyke is there try holding their hand or keeping them contained via stroller/cart/leash-thing/what have you.  Also, always accompany your child to the restroom; nearly all malls now have restrooms and changing areas made especially for families.  Depending on their age it’s possible to let the child go to the bathroom without being directly in the stall with them, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay close by.  While at their most vulnerable being within earshot and ignoring potential distractions (phone, other conversations, etc) is important for your child’s safety and security.

Kids mature enough to be trusted may be allowed to go to the mall’s stores without supervision, but make sure they check with you before they go and keep you up to date with their movements.  This is where technology is beneficial as they can text you when they get to the store and again when they leave it, sharing their next plans with you.  (Obviously if you try this and the child doesn’t follow the rules it should be back to sticking with the ‘rents until they can be trusted.)  Have them check in with you in person every so often as well; plans for meeting each other should always be clearly conveyed and adhered to by everyone.  If possible also have them go with some friends or siblings of about the same age – it might be more fun and it’s definitely safer for them.

Separation Anti-Anxiety

Even despite best efforts, it happens…kids become separated from parents in the hustle and bustle of shopping.  Because of this it’s of the utmost importance a child know what to do if it happens before it happens.  First thing is, if they discover they are lost, they shouldn’t wander off in search of you…inevitably this only makes finding one another harder.  They should also be taught to never leave the mall in search of you or the family car.  Should they get lost out in the open (i.e. not at a specific store) they should go to the mall’s help/customer service desk or, because ’tis the season, perhaps the line for Santa which the child is likely to find easily and have plenty of other parents with their children to watch over him or her until you’re reunited; that choice is up to you and your child, just make sure it’s clear where they should go before you enter the mall.  You should teach children to look for specific people who can help return him to her to you such as law-enforcement officers, security officers, store personnel, or another parent with children.  …Also helpful is for your child to take note of what you’re wearing, your name (not just Mommy or Daddy), and being able to describe you.

A special note for those who ride trains (such those of the Massachusetts MBTA or NYC subways):  If your child gets stuck on the train as you get off they should get off at the next stop and wait until you arrive.  If your child gets off at the wrong stop they should stay right there until you’re able to relocate them.  The last thing either parent or child wants is for the child to ride a confusing train system within a busy, crowded, city, on their own.  …There are also occasionally train security members who your child might be able to locate and request to stay with them until reunited with you, but those people are few and far between.

Practice Makes Perfect

Visit the mall with your kids for the sole purpose of getting them used to the layout of where you’ll be shopping and having them practice what they should do with and if separated from you.  This is when you can ensure they can locate the help/customer service desk, along with others that might help within the mall and the stores and, for older children, go to the restroom with a friend and/or obey your “text when you’re there, text when you go” rule suggested earlier.  Be sure to do it on a day when you aren’t shopping and can keep a continuous eye on your kids in case they aren’t sure of everything yet.  With enough practice what you’ve taught them should come as second nature so, if and when the time comes, they won’t have to panic or worry…they’ll already be confident in what to do.

Anonymity Is Key

It can be cute and help you tell the kids apart at a distance, but never dress children in clothing with their names on it.  That type of clothing allows a predatory person an easy way to convince you child they are not “strangers” and therefore should be trusted, which could lead to disaster. No stranger should have an invitation to talk to your child and a name on a jacket or little purse gives them just that.  On a further note, those little car decals with the stick figure families all named in row…equally bad if not worse.  Now a potential predator has the name of your children and you so all they really have to do is say: “Hey, are you Timmy?  Are your parents Sally and John?  Yes, well, they’ve been hurt and told me to come get you.” and it’s more than likely your child will follow the predator without a second thought.

Kid Friendly ≠ Kid Safe

Malls may have any number of kid-friendly places available…video arcades, movie theaters, toy stores, and even playgrounds.  At first glance they seem the perfect place to stick whining kids while you run off to buy presents nearby.  At a closer look though these places are clear magnets for child predators and aren’t anywhere a parent or guardian should leave a child alone.  They have little to no supervision and if there is staff they’re generally not much older than your children; most are teens more interested in socializing with friends and playing on their cells than the large group of kids running around them.  They probably don’t really care about your kids, aren’t watching for any suspicious behavior, and can quickly and easily become overwhelmed with even minor issues.  …Any child in these kid-friendly areas are rather easy targets for a predator and, in the end, there is no substitute for parental supervision.

Have a Safe Season’s Greetings!

In the end, if you can’t adequately supervise your children without being distracted, stay at home or leave them with someone trusted while you do your shopping.

An excellent source for all manner of information regarding child safety, preventing abduction, and identifying potentially dangerous circumstances is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.missingkids.com). Give them a visit and your children will be safer for it.

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