Child-Leash Alternatives - Encouraging Independence in Older Kids While Keeping Them Safe

Anyone with children who can move around on their own has felt the sinking feeling that your child is lost. Most of the time the feeling only lasts a split second before you realize your child just moved to the other side of the shopping cart, or stopped to examine a toy just before you turned into the next aisle at the store.
But every so often (and I personally have a couple memories from my own childhood) a child actually does get lost and for the next heart pounding minutes everything in the world stops except your need to find your child again. Thank goodness for all the store clerks, security guards, kind strangers and amusement park staff who come to the aid of both parents and children when they become separated in crowded places.
Recently, we were down at a busy shopping center that had put on a big festival with all sorts of free activities for the kids and sales for the grownups. Needless to say, the place was mobbed and I realized that the most fun and exciting situations are also the loudest and most crowded. Consequently the best places to go are often the easiest for kids and their parents to get distracted and separated from each other.
Although I've never used a child-leash on my kids, I've seen plenty of confident families using them with perfect comfort and ease. But there comes an age when you just can't put a kid on a leash and the strategies for keeping toddlers close no longer work. When kids are starting to feel more independent yet are still young enough to get excited and distracted you need an alternative to the Child-Leash.
That's why I thought it would be good to share a few techniques that have worked for us to keep track of our kids in crowded or public places. 
  1. Talking Range - My favorite strategy came out of my desire to not be the Dad who was shouting hi skids names really loudly over and over. One day after having shouted the 50th time for the kids to stay close, I stopped them and said, "If I have to raise my voice above a loud talking level to get your attention, you won't be allowed to walk ahead of me." This turned out to be a good system and within a few minutes they had a good sense of how far ahead - or behind - they could stray. The reason I like this strategy so much is that it is adaptable to all kinds of situations and usually works out perfectly for both me and the kids because the louder and more bustling the situation, the closer I want them to be and the less distance they can go and still hear me.
  2. Line of Sight - This one works best when the density of the crowd is minimal. Shopping centers, department stores and parks are good examples. Basically I just tell my kids that they can't go behind things or around corners from me. The key to this is establishing some kind of signal which means "come back now". If the signal is ignored by the child, instant revocation of independence occurs, usually accompanied by some other punishment like a time-out. However, with this one it is hard for me to stay calm for even a fraction of a second if I look around and can't see my daughter. When this happens (and it does) I stop myself, and count to ten while continuing to look in the direction I last saw her. Usually, something was blocking her from my sight like another parent or some other children and the counting allows a few seconds for her to re-appear.
  3. The Satellite Strategy - This is great for giving kids a real sense of independence, but is also the hardest for me as a parent to get used to. This is really about educating kids as to what your own movements are going to be and then allowing them to venture outwards as long as they check back in periodically. The keys here are in setting boundaries ("don't leave the store", "stay in the Toon Town area" etc) and then establishing where you will meet up and when. The easiest is simply something like "Mom and I will be here at the café if you want to go on the Log Ride again, just come back afterward".

Mostly, each of these ideas depends on communicating with your child and adhering to the rules you have set up. I find it is powerful to stop the kids right at the entrance to the fair, shopping mall or whatever situation, and have a huddle where we lay out the plan.
Plan enforcement comes in the form of restricted freedom should one of the kids break the rules. One minute per year of age seems to be enough time of forced proximity or hand-holding to convince our independent minded kids to stick to the rules. Usually we don't have to actually get angry or shout at the kids for them to stick to the rules, simply removing privileges is enough to reinforce them.
Finally, in each situation, I try to give my kids a plan for what to do should the worst happen. Depending on the situation, we lay it out - "Find a person in one of those red vests and tell him you're lost", "Ask the person with the badge to help you", "Go to the checkout counter and wait for me".
Every day it seems there is a new parenting challenge and we have to come up with a new way to meet it. It is so important to encourage the growth of these small people without compromising our own needs for protecting them and keeping them happy. I hope these thoughts will be helpful to other parents.