The now extinct Megalodon shark had jaws 9 feet tall, embedded with a halo of dozens of 7in. teeth. Sixty feet long, the monster Megalodon could bite down on it’s prey with 18 tons of pressure; 36,000 lbs. of bone crushing ferocity.
“Stand right there,” I directed my two boys as I framed their 5 & 3 year old bodies together inside the Megalodon’s open mouth. They would have been little tasty appetizers for the prehistoric monster shark.
I also wanted a photo of each one alone , so the youngest boy stepped to the side. I positioned the 5 year old in the camera’s viewfinder. I raised the camera again, my other eye shut, and click, click, click. I wanted a unique mommento of our time together.
I lowered the camera to direct the boys to switch places, but I began blinking in astonishment that the 3 year old had vanished. He was there 5 seconds earlier, standing calmly waiting his turn to be photographed. (I should have held my son’s hand, or had him stand up against me in front of me while I took the picture. If he moved, I would have felt it. I could have had my older daughter hold his hand. She had turned her attention to another exhibit close by, for a moment. He had innocently exploited our attention loophole.)
I quickly began searching the nearest areas, but each display led to a bustling corridor. My son was like a blood clot burst loose front the sidewall of an artery. He could be traveling to the lungs, heart, or brain, in the vast circulatory system of the 100 year old natural history museum. I was the one hyperventilating about to have a stroke, or so I felt.
The floorspace in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is the size of 18 football fields. More than 4 milllion people a year visit in Washington, DC.
My son was a child accustomed to roaming and climbing on our farm in Virginia, but we were there on a Saturday in summer, with thousands of strangers in the immediate vicinity. It would be like trying to find a dime on the field of Dallas Cowboy Stadium.
Within 30 seconds I knew I was in trouble and needed help.
I rushed up to a guard: “Hi, I just lost my little boy. He’s 3.”
I felt panicky-hopeful. Surely, the guard could make an announcement, and everyone in the museum would look around, then someone would see him, and I’d have him back momentarily.
The guard asked me my son’s name, and what he was wearing. My mind went blank, but having just snapped his photo, I started to dig around for the camera when I remembered:
“Blue, blue, he’s wearing a navy blue polo shirt, and khaki shorts.” I was stuttering and stammering, adrenaline hijacking my ability to think clearly and speak coherently.
The guard immediately reported the descriptors into his radio. I noticed several guards, power walking in different trajectories, following their training to implement emergency protocols to seal the exits.
There was no public announcement. Instead we were the impetus to a major lockdown at the Smithsonian.
All exits were closed, and each person had to be individually let in and out of the building. It was high drama searching for someone more precious than all the millions of priceless artifacts in the world’s most famous Natural History Museum.
Does it makes sense to want to take a picture of your children in public? Of course.
Does it seem reasonable that it will take one or two seconds to take each picture? Absolutely.
Does it seem obvious that a toddler can dart away, silently in one or two seconds and blend into a crowd? Not necessarily.
I had been naive and underestimated his stealth and speed, and overestimated my ability to monitor his every move. I was frustrated by my inability to pick him out in a crowd.
Why didn’t I dress him in bright orange? I lamented out loud.
In my own defense, the area around the pre-historic aquatic display was not especially crowded. However, the adjacent gallery had a rare diamond on loan from another museum, and the crowds were 5 deep around the gems display.
In our gallery, there were only a few families moving in small groups, and I still couldn’t see him. A torturous 10 minutes, passed while I was consumed with self-recrimination, and worry. Not the optimal mental state to be useful in a big search for a small child.
I was baffled about how he could have moved away from the area so rapidly, unless someone had moved him, a terrifying thought.
Twelve long excruciating minutes later, my daughter found him in the original gallery not too far from the megalodon shark jaws. He had managed to hide so successfully by joining up with another family as they moved from display to display. He blended in so well that I had undoubtedly looked right past him multiple times in my frantic state of mind. The family probably didn’t notice him because they were focused on looking at the exhibits, and not on counting the number of heads in their posse.
“It’s ok mom, I was with those other people,” he calmly explained as I pressed him to me, in absolute wonder that he had magically re-appearred as suddenly as he had disappeared.
He had felt safe. He had not sensed any danger. He didn’t think he was lost; he had just continued on doing what we had come to the museum to do. He had zero self-awareness that hundreds of people were searching for him. His boundless energy pushed him to circulate and explore. He was a typical toddler.
Since then I have personally observed parents taking pictures of children in public places like parks, museums, sporting events. They are focused, like I was, on the viewfinder, and completely oblivious to the surrounding action, at least for a few moments. But that is all it takes for situational awareness to drop. Notice parents taking pictures. Is their attention diverted from their toddlers? Are the toddlers fastened in a stroller, backpack or being held by the hand, or monitored by another adult? Notice the gaps in situational awareness.
A) At least two adults on a trip to watch multiple children.
B) Consider hiring a babysitter for crowded events or venues like family reunions and excursions. It is fatiguing to spend hours monitoring a child alone in public surroundings. Young children need to be fastened in a stroller or backpack or held in the arms or by the hand in situations when attention is diverted as at the grocery store.
C) If at a museum or other venue, seek help from the venue staff if the child can’t be found in the first minute. Don’t wait for minutes to pass without recruiting help to search.
D) If the parent is sick or exhausted, or emotionally distraught consider rescheduling the outing so that enough attention bandwidth can be used for supervision. Or consider leaving toddlers at home.
E) Pause before bringing a camera to the eye. Take one or two seconds to scan the environment to look for energy sources, ie. moving objects like balls, people who will intersect your group, and unsecured toddlers.