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My husband Ed and I have enjoyed many vacations in Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks in California, an area full of beautiful mountains and a great deal of wildlife, including bears.

The Illusion of Safety can make it hard to recognize potential danger. A serene setting, familiarity, tiredness, or overwhelm can cause us to assume everything is safe, and there’s no reason to worry.

On one trip many years ago, I left Ed sitting by the trailhead and went back to the parking lot to get my jacket. Suddenly, I noticed a small child clearly less than three years old sitting alone on a picnic table sipping from a cup. She had rosy cheeks, a cheerful pink dress stained with what might have been grape juice, and no adults near her. She was looking intently in the direction of the river, which was hidden below a small hill. I could hear voices of people and splashing, but no one was in sight. Beside her was an impossible-to-miss yellow sign warning about this being an active bear area.

While no part of my being could have let me walk past this vulnerable toddler, I confess I felt indignant and irritated. I wished that parks and parking lots would have those signs that many stores do: “Do not leave your children unattended!” Surely, I thought, this reminder is as important as the other signs that announced, “Do not leave your valuables in your car” and “Do not feed the bears!”

The minutes ticked by as I waited near the child, not wanting to alarm her by staring at or approaching her, but ready to help her, just in case. I was out of cell phone range and knew Ed must be wondering where I was. I kept gazing around, hoping that her adults would appear. After at least ten minutes, the little girl started to become restless and looked like she was getting ready to wander off. So I shouted out towards the river, “Hello! Excuse me!”

A woman’s head peeked out over the edge of the hill and called, “Is she all right? I told her to sit right there.”

“She’s fine,” I called back. Then, to my shock, the woman’s head disappeared as she headed back to the river!

“Wait!” I bellowed. “Come back here. Please!”

Looking hot and tired, the child’s mother reluctantly walked up the hill to us. “I was only going to be gone for a second,” she said apologetically.

“Your child is too small and too precious to be left here even for a second!” I kept my voice firm, yet kind, resisting the urge to scold that she had been away had been far longer than a second.

“Really?” the mother glanced around. “It seems so peaceful here. She refused to come with us. I didn’t want to get into another argument, so I let her stay and drink her juice. Just for a couple of minutes.”

“I understand.” I did my best to empathize rather than judge. “Yet this is about her safety and not a decision she is capable of making.” Then I pointed to the signs. “There really are bears; and the river; and cars; and a few strangers who might be looking for something to steal. Even though she was sitting quietly, it is unsafe to leave any young child unprotected in a place like this – even for a second.”

The woman lifted the little girl and put her on her hip. “Thank you,” she said, carrying her daughter off to rejoin the rest of their family. I could sense she didn’t really “get” the risks at that moment and hoped that she would think about my advice later.

Later, Ed and I told our story to a ranger. With a great deal of distress, he described how children drown every year in that river because people are misled by the serenity of the surroundings into believing that it is safe.

Kidpower’s Founding Principle is: “The safety and well being of a child are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.” In other words, this means that we are committed to putting safety first, ahead of uncomfortable feelings.

Put Safety First is not just about our personal safety. It also clearly applies in situations like this: waiting with a child even if your husband must be wondering where you are; speaking up with the truth, even if someone might be upset with you; and being supportive to a tired mother, even though you feel frustrated and dismayed about her lack of awareness or concern.

We will never know what would have happened. This little girl might have been just fine without my intervention – or my actions might have helped to prevent a tragedy. Let us all remember the Kidpower Strategies to: “Stay Aware, Take Charge, and Get Help!” for others as well as ourselves.

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Published: February 12, 2019   |   Last Updated: February 12, 2019

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.