Reporter's Notebook

Every Parent's Worst Panic
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Readers tell their frantic stories of losing a young child in public. If you have your own experience to share, drop us a note at

Show 1 Newer Notes

When the Kindness of Strangers Can Save Your Kid

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.

That’s probably what Dana screamed in her head:

Thank you for all these stories of readers losing their little kids in public. Here’s mine: I was on the 22nd floor of a downtown office building with my baby in a stroller, holding the hand of my three-year-old son as we waited for the elevator. When the doors opened, the older boy slipped free and darted in. As I struggled to get the wheels of the stroller over the threshold of the elevator, the doors closed.

I am not sure why or how the elevator automatically went to the ground floor. Perhaps that was the default for the car, in case no one pressed a button. Or perhaps the kid knew to push G! We never figured that out.

The minutes I spent waiting for a second elevator and traveling down were some of the longest of my life. This was before cell phones. My three-year-old was waiting for us, in the lobby, crying, holding the hand of a uniformed janitor.

So yeah. A split second.

Dana’s story reminds me of this scene from Louie, when CK loses his daughter on a subway platform after she suddenly lunges through the closing doors:

This next reader, Anne, also has a story of a little kid getting through a door and exposing himself to danger:

I know this story isn’t about losing a child in public, but it really does take seconds for them to get into a situation. Toddlers can be amazingly curious, agile, and very quick.

I worked in child care for many years and lived for a while with friends, Russ and Cass, who had three kids. We traded partial rent for baby-sitting duties. Their two-year-old son, Rickie, was the challenge, as he was big for his age and quite the handful.

One day, while the kids were watching cartoons, Rickie suddenly decided to climb a bookcase.

Via hello@, a reader in Queens flags a video from 1986 showing a five-year-old boy British boy at the Jersey Zoo—but this story doesn’t end with a dead body and the shaming of a distraught mother. As Tim notes, “This video is bubbling up a bit thanks to the Cincinnati incident, but mostly in the British press [the boy’s British], so Americans may not know the charming tale of Jambo the gentle silverback” (“jambo” means “hello” in Swahili):

From the YouTube caption:

Jambo shot to international news stardom overnight on August 31, 1986, when five year old Levan Merritt fell into the gorilla enclosure [at the Jersey Zoo] and lost consciousness. Jambo stood guard over the boy when he was unconscious, placing himself between the boy and other gorillas in what ethologists analyze as a protective gesture. He later stroked the unconscious boy. When the boy regained consciousness and started to cry, Jambo and the other gorillas retreated, and an ambulanceman and two keepers rescued the boy.

“I was a perfect parent before I had a kid,” quips a reader responding to our callout for stories of losing a child in public:

There are a lot of childless, perfect parents in the world lately. Parenting is the hardest job in the world that no one can prepare you for and everyone thinks they can do it better then you.

Our story: My husband and I decided to do yard work on a gorgeous spring day, our almost-two-year-old son in tow. He was alternating between helping push the wheelbarrow and scooping up dirt.

And in a split second he was gone.

“I thought you had him,” followed by mind-boggling panic. You can’t really describe what it feels like when your world disappears in front of you. It only took a second. It was maybe two minutes before we found him just a few yards away checking out my husband’s car. But it felt like a lifetime.

Another reader can relate: “As any parent knows, it only takes a few seconds for attention to be diverted and something horrible to occur. Not minutes—SECONDS.” That’s the pattern I’m seeing among the dozens of notes coming in from readers: “split second,” “I looked away for just a moment,” “blink of an eye.” That tiny fragment of time, followed by a seemingly endless span of dread, is illustrated in the following scene from The Witch, a brilliant and unnerving film I recently watched and rewatched. (The full scene of the missing baby is so deeply disturbing—one of the most disturbing I’ve ever seen in cinema—that I cut most of it out to create this custom clip on YouTube.)

This next reader, like most of you writing in, wishes to remain anonymous:

I have a story of a lost child. It’s a story we thought of immediately in the aftermath of the Cincy Zoo incident.

We live in Cincinnati, coincidentally. We were at a Cincinnati Reds game and our four-year-old daughter wanted to go on the big, enclosed slide that goes down a full story to a garden area. My wife was at the top of the slide, and I walked down to the bottom—maybe a two-minute walk. Thinking I’d be down there already, my wife let her go down the slide and find me.

I stood at the bottom of the slide for a good three minutes, and my wife and younger daughter come down. She looks at me and asks, “Where is she?” I’m sure my eyes looked like dinner plates as I turned and sprinted through the garden to the top of the slide.

The panic was unbelievable: How in the hell am I going to find a little kid amid a 6th-inning crowd on a Sunday afternoon?! If she got scared and turned and started running in the wrong direction, I’d never find her.

Luckily, I did find her: at the the top of a slide, clutching a stranger who was comforting her.

Does this make me and my wife negligent parents? Turns out, there were two walkways through the garden. I was walking down one, and she must have gone down the other. We didn’t see each other. My wife, a borderline “helicopter parent,” was certain we couldn’t miss each other, so she let her go. Was it our faults? Absolutely. Could it have happened to anyone? Absolutely.

Losing a kid in a split second can happen to anyone, the best parents included. We are good, attentive parents, but this isn’t the only story we have. And it will happen again. As always, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Tens of thousands of online commenters should have considered that Christian adage before assailing the Cincy mother (whom Ron defended at length). This Notes thread is already becoming a sort of confessional space for parents to open up about the extremely common, though extremely judged, experience of losing a child in public. From a reader in Indiana:

Oh boy, do I have a story. Let the parents and non-parents judge me all they want, but make it anonymous so I don’t have to read the comments or fend off death threats.

If you haven’t yet heard about the story of the four-year-old kid at the Cincinnati zoo who climbed into the pen of a gorilla that was subsequently shot dead, Ron covered it yesterday. He defended the mother against the hordes of online commenters blaming her for the child slipping away in a split second. (An edited version of events is embedded above, and the original smartphone footage is here in full.) One reader’s reaction to the story:

There’s a post going around Facebook from a woman on the scene who indicated that parents simply lost their kid in one of those “blink of an eye” moments. Most parents will tell you that yes, small children are curious and impulsive and can act stupidly in an unbelievably short span of time. In the meantime, the rush to judge the parents has led to: