When the Kindness of Strangers Can Save Your Kid

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

A reader with hearing difficulties, Cliff, is especially vulnerable to his children slipping away in public, so he emphasizes how crucial it can be for strangers to step in when a kid seems lost or endangered. Cliff titles his note, “Sometimes it takes a village.”

My question is why didn’t any of the other guests at the Cincinnati Zoo that day pull the kid off the enclosure walls before he fell in to the gorilla pen? Surely someone saw him before the fall? As a partially deaf parent of toddlers, I struggle daily to make sure my kids don’t inadvertently kill themselves whilst under my care, so I’m almost always grateful when a kind stranger or neighbor pitches in to help.

Case in point: My wife and I were at a park with our two daughters (ages three and one) and several adult friends and their children. We employee the “divide and conquer” strategy of child supervision, meaning we each pick a kid who we are responsible for watching at all times. This system normally works very well; late in the day, however, things went awry.

I thought I saw my wife taking both girls to play on the swings. Assuming she was now supervising both girls, I finally relaxed my constant vigilance to have a normal conversation with another adult. My wife (who had our three-year-old and the child of a friend) yelled to me to make sure I was still watching our one-year-old. She was on my deaf side so I heard nothing, but she assumed I heard her because she saw me nodding repeatedly as she was yelling at me. I was actually nodding about something my friend was saying.

I repeatedly looked over to my wife across the park. She was still swinging two girls, who I assumed both were mine, so I continued my conversation. Meanwhile, my one-year-old had gone behind us, out into the edge of the street that runs alongside the park. Luckily, one of our friends saw her, picked her up off of the curb, and brought her to me.

It was perhaps a comedy of errors that brought us perilously close to disaster, but I think this story highlights that we parents, despite our highest levels of diligence, are not perfect. Thus, it truly does take a village to raise a child. I am so grateful that our friend didn’t just ignore our obviously unattended child with a “none of my business” excuse or worry more about offending us than our child’s safety.

I wonder if anyone at the zoo that day saw the child climbing up the enclosure and could have stepped in to prevent disaster but didn’t because he/she didn’t want to interfere or offend?

Update from a reader, Frances, who nobly interfered:

That video of the man losing his daughter on the subway platform [Louis CK] was what I saw happening to someone else while I was waiting for a train a few years ago: Mom got on, child didn’t. Obviously Mom would be coming back, but I didn’t want to leave the child there alone, so I sat with him until she did. Luckily I had the time, but I think I would have done it regardless.