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Parent Moments: Now You See Her, Now You Don't

My daughter Natalie, 5, must be related to Houdini. She's had a knack for disappearing since she could crawl. Sometimes her act is perfectly innocuous and sweet, such as snuggling out of sight under her bunk with a blanket and a coloring book. More often it's downright terrifying, in an age where we teach "stranger danger" alongside teeth brushing, and where missing children are as likely to make the news as election updates.

One of the scariest incidents took place at L.L. Bean's huge flagship store in Freeport, Maine. My goal was to outfit three kids for winter, but 2 1/2-year-old Natalie was having a hard time staying put. Who wouldn't, when there were a bear, a deer, a fox, a couple of coyotes, and several weasel-like creatures to meet across the room? I tried distracting her: I bribed her with a box of Band-Aids, I threatened stroller confinement, I let her hide under a rack of dangly snow pants. And then I turned my head for two seconds to check on my other children, and Natalie was gone, just like that.

Panic rising, I looked across a forest of displays and racks, any one of which could be concealing her. I sent Caitlin to check the dressing rooms, and left Ellie to stay put in case Natalie wandered back. Then I confused them both by telling them to stay with me so I wouldn't lose them, too. A clerk recognized my frantic look and offered help. In seconds, three clerks and I were calling for Natalie as we combed the entire children's floor, which had multiple stairways and exits and was packed with shoppers. All I could think of was Natalie heading for the trout pond on the floor above, and some strange shopper luring her away. I broke into a prickly sweat: How would I find her? What if she was terrified? What would I tell Matt?

What seemed like an eternity was fewer than five minutes. I found her under a water bottle display that afforded a great view of the animals. After that catastrophe, I tried being stern, straightforward, even scary. All that has worked has been strapping her into the stroller for every outing.

Of course, the stroller trick doesn't exactly work when we're running around the yard at home. But what kind of a bird-brained mother loses her kid in her own house, anyway? That would be me. When Natalie was 4, we were outside celebrating spring with a game of hide-and-seek. I shouted, "Surprise!" at her two favorite spots -- behind a fat blue spruce on our lawn and just below the giant granite outcropping in our side yard -- but apparently they had gotten old. I searched on, but as the minutes ticked by and I still couldn't find her, I was running laps around the house, into the woods, to the street, calling to her all the while. I charged inside, upstairs and down, pleading for her to just yell out, "Here I am, Mom." Finally, I found her, under her bed. She found it hilarious to have hidden so successfully -- and to have scared the flip-flops off of Mom. I shook for an hour afterward, half with relief, half with anger.

I'm all for independence and an adventuresome spirit, but not when my daughter thinks nothing of wandering off without a word in the grocery store or the library -- or at home. Natalie is too old for the stroller routine now. But she is also old enough to better understand the risks, which I explain by walking that razor-sharp edge between rousing caution and raising terror. Maybe I'll try a GPS tracker. I bet L.L. Bean has one.

How about you? Have your children ever wandered off? Click on "Share Your Comment" below to add a quick comment to this article. If we like your comment best, you could win a great prize in our Comment Mania! Contest.

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