Teaching your child what to do when he or she is lost is something that shouldn't be postponed past the toddler or preschooler years. The good news is, you can teach it bit by bit - and keep it simple. In fact, there are probably only five basic rules every kid needs in this situation.
These five vital points are easy to teach, little by little, every day or every other day. I begin by asking, "If we were at the park or the mall and you lost Mommy or Daddy, what would you do?" Most children won't have a good answer, but this is a good starting point for teaching the rules:
1. Stay put. Tell kids they shouldn't move around looking for you because that makes it harder for Mom or Dad to find them.
2. Ask a mommy for help. In Gavin de Becker's book Protecting the Gift (a book every parent should read), he suggests lost children look for a woman to help them because women are statistically far less likely to harm a child. Better yet, de Becker and others now say, look for a woman with children - the person most likely to want to help and not harm your child. Explaining this reasoning to your child - in an age appropriate way - is a great way to ensure they follow this rule.
3. Know the phone number. Teach kids your cell phone number. Go over the number every day until the child has it memorized, and then ask the child to repeat it to you once a week or so. Young children sometimes have a really hard time remembering phone numbers. If you find this is the case, consider something one mom I know swears by: She writes her cell phone number inside her kids' shoes using a Sharpie pen. That way, even if nerves get the best of a child, she can just remove her shoe and get a contact number.
4. Know our real names. If someone asked your 4 year old "What's your daddy's name?" would he answer, "Daddy?" Teach your child you and your husband's real names - first and last - in case of an emergency.
5. Know the secret code. This tip comes from Focus on the Family's Thriving Family magazine. Tell your child that no one other than Mommy or Daddy (or, if appropriate, some other care giver) will ever pick that child up from school, the soccer game, or similar locations without knowing the secret code. In the example given at Thriving Family, one child's code was "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego" and the parents held a secret ceremony to give the child his code.
When you're just beginning to teach these safety tips, go over them every day. You can even act out a scenario where your child gets lost. The idea is to firmly implant these rules into the child's head. Once your child knows the rules well, you can go over them once or month or so by asking a simple question while you're out in public: "What would you do if you lost Mommy in this place?"