'I’d Forgotten How Fast Toddlers Can Really Move'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader series clearly struck a chord, as many parents keep writing in to share their stories. Here’s Leila:

My brother was two years old when my mother and I turned around to find that he had evaporated into thin air. My brother from an early age was nuts about trains, so she headed to the train station about four city blocks away. She found my brother there dancing up and down on the concrete platform waiting for the next express train to go through. It was just on the verge of rush hour.

I think you are fortunate if you’ve raised a child and you do not have an almost-horror story to tell about that moment when you looked the other way or you thought everything was under to control … only to discover that it wasn't.

Another time it wasn’t:

My husband is currently using an iPhone with a cracked screen because of an incident at Christmas, when we were at La Guardia getting ready to fly home for the holiday.

A friend dropped us off at the airport, and after he drove off I realized I’d left my work laptop in the car. We left the terminal and went out onto the curb to wait for the friend to come back with my computer.

Our 18-month-old daughter was already getting impatient with the whole travel concept, so my husband put her onto one of those luggage carts and started pushing her up and down the sidewalk to keep her entertained. You can imagine how thick the traffic was in the street; it was the main drop-off/pick-up area for terminal B on a weekend, near a holiday.

They played happily for a bit, and then with absolutely no warning, my daughter jumped off the luggage cart and darted toward the street. We caught her an inch away from the curb. My husband’s phone fell from his shirt pocket and the screen cracked, but we counted ourselves extremely lucky to have escaped the incident with nothing but a broken phone.

But we don’t kid ourselves: We didn’t prevent something horrible from happening because we’re such great parents. We were being pretty stupid, actually. One of us should have let our daughter run around inside the terminal while the other waited on the friend.

But my daughter is our only child, and since my babysitting days as a teenager, I’d apparently forgotten how fast toddlers can really move when they want to, and how impulsive they are. It just never occurred to me she’d do that until she did it.

It seems like that’s exactly what that mom at that Cincinnati zoo did. It didn’t occur to her that her son would do that until he did it, and she misjudged the speed and impulsivity of a toddler. That mom could have been me.

Here’s another mom, Cyndi, and she has a suggestion for keeping your kids close (or too close, as the above video illustrates to an absurd degree):

I did have my son disappear from my sight for five minutes on a family camping trip, and after this experience, we put him on a “kid leash” when we went out into situations that might be dangerous for him—where he could run away easily and we could lose sight of him in a split second. We didn’t like having him on the leash, but he was an impulsive and hyperactive kid and it was in his best interest.

I do think that parents need to be held accountable for their children either endangering themselves or putting others at risk, as in the case of children having access to firearms in a home and shooting others “accidentally.” These are accidents that can be prevented by putting your child on a kid leash or locking the gun in a cabinet. If parents were held more accountable for their children’s “accidents,” I think they would of necessity be more careful and conscious of situations where their child could endanger themselves, or put another in danger, including a gorilla.

Or an orca:

I lost both my kids at Sea World FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES. And you know Sea World has that bloodthirsty whale (just kidding—too soon? Bad taste. Sorry.)

My kids, age five and eight, went into a large pirate-ship play structure in the middle of a pond (lots of safety netting around it). Since none of the (six) adults with us realized the structure had another exit, we didn’t see a need to actually go over the gangplank and go into the structure with the kids. “We’ll wait right here; come out when you’re done.”

Sure enough, the children went out the “wrong” end and wandered around looking for us before getting distracted and going into a different play structure (with very bad visibility; we ended up getting INSIDE the second one and that’s when we found them, happily playing and oblivious to our panic). 

My older child, my daughter, knew she was supposed to ask a “mommy” for help (any mommy, that's the rule), but she was too shy and also too distracted by the next play structure, which she insisted “was the next thing anyway” (we were going in a circle around the area). 

Now, there are many, many dangers at Sea World. And my younger child, five at the time and a boy, was quite the little daredevil. Any number of things could have happened. My husband and I are damn good parents (evidence: my kids are now 16 and 13 and FREAKING AWESOME). 

Had my son drowned in the play structure pond because he climbed the “safety” netting on the ship, would I have been vilified on the internet? Told I should have got ON the pirate ship like the parents of toddlers did? Perhaps I should have had my eye on him for the entire ten minutes he was on the enclosed structure with his older sister? Do parents do that with five- and eight-year-olds at playgrounds—never take their eye off the kid? I don’t think so. 

Children make independent decisions like my daughter did. And they make those decisions at the age level they are at, so they’re often not great decisions. 

I cannot imagine being a parent of younger kids in the social media era. It’s got to be just constant second guessing.