Six Things Parents Can Do to Keep Their Kids Safe on Vacation

In the wake of the fatal alligator attack at a Disney resort, our family travel expert shares advice that could help prevent future tragedy.

The tale of two-year-old Lane Graves, snatched by an alligator from a lagoon near the Grand Floridian Hotel in Florida in 2016, is a tragedy. A family lost a child and no amount of “could have” or “should have” will change that. My heart goes out to them.

These types of situations have a tendency to spark outrage and create division, especially in the realm of social media.

The practical outcomes are regularly the same, too: Fingers are pointed, parents are vilified, and the animals are hunted.

We saw it only weeks ago with Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo into whose enclosure a young boy fell. The zoo has been accused of inadequate barriers, the child's mother was brought under legal scrutiny (though eventually absolved), and Harambe was shot and killed for acting like a gorilla. Luckily, in this case, the boy survived.

Sadly, the latest incident didn't end the same way.

As parents, these stories strike fear into our hearts. We've all lost sight of a child for a moment while tending to another or had two toddlers shoot off in separate directions at a theme park.

The simple fact is, we don’t take our kids to the zoo so they can come into harm's way. We don’t take them to a movie night on the beach to be snatched by an alligator.

We do these things out of love, out of a desperate need for a vacation, because we want to spend time with our families and expose them to another part of the world.

The trouble is, oftentimes “being away” means we let our guards down. It’s why we, while vigilant about childproofing our homes, often head off on holiday and, in our excitement, forget we're in an unfamiliar place—one with different risks, different behavioral norms, and different emergency resources than we're used to at home.

Whether we're on an African safari or at an all-inclusive Disney resort, vacation has a way of imbuing us with a false sense of security.

Something in our brains says, “Nothing can go wrong.”

But it can and it does.

And it's when those missteps make the front page, family therapist and parenting book author Alyson Schafer tells me, that the world turns its head to judge.

Schafer is quick to point out that the final outcome almost always dictates how we evaluate the actions that precipitated it, citing a burning building as an illustration of this concept in action.

“If you run into the building and save someone, everyone thinks you’re a hero,” she says. “If you die, they’ll ask 'Why did that guy go into a burning building?'”

Had Lane survived the alligator attack, the miracle would have made the news and images of the toddler wading in the lagoon would have been a highlight of the family photo album. (Search your vacation videos. Chances are high that you’ll find Lane was not the first two-year-old to splash in potentially dangerous water on a hot night.)

The hard truth is that risk is a part of life, whether we're at home or abroad. But in the wake of this latest vacation horror story, let us take a moment to review a few key strategies parents can use to help them keep safety front of mind when they're traveling with their kids.

Be the village.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual to be reprimanded by strangers if they saw me doing something I shouldn’t have been doing. Times have changed—some of it is for the better—but we seem to have lost the instinct to step in and help. It could be that we fear reprisal (or even litigation) from a defensive parent, but when weighed against the consequences of turning a blind eye, the right decision becomes clear.

Start your vacations with a safety briefing.

The goal of vacation is always to have fun. Certainly. But that doesn’t mean we should approach it without caution. At the very least, have a discussion with your kids about some of the situations they might find themselves in (separated from the family, unexpected encounters with animals, etc.). The excitement of the trip is bound to affect their ability to assess risk, so it falls on us as parents to help them understand the rules of their new environment, no matter how temporary.

Ask yourself whether you've picked the right destination.

Not every destination—or every activity, for that matter—is suitable for every child at every age. Be honest with yourself at the outset about whether you are capable of keeping them safe in a particular place or space. Enlist the help of a travel companion or plan your outing for a time when you’ll have the best resources at hand. And give yourself permission, even after starting out on an experience, to change your mind. Eating the cost of those zip-line tickets is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

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Stress the reality of animals in the wild.

An alligator doesn’t stop being an alligator because you show a movie in its habitat. A gorilla in a zoo is still a gorilla. It can be easy for families to take a false sense of security from the fact that something familiar and fun is happening. Instead, talk with your kids about where you are and how it's different than their normal environment. Teach them about the animals that call the area home and help them appreciate the need to respect boundaries. If you have kids who can’t follow the rules, or are too young to understand them, consider opting out. The opportunity to interact with wildlife will still be there when they’re older and better able to process this kind of information.

Set your own rules and standards to follow abroad.

Not every waterway will have a sign advising of the possibility of drowning. This is especially true in countries outside of North America, where risks may be recognized as part of daily life. Therefore it falls on parents to ask the questions that make them comfortable with the excursion. Contact the outfitter or attraction to inquire about potential dangers and make it clear that you’ll have children with you. An animal that wouldn’t consider attacking you may see your young child in a completely different light. At the same time, respect the age and weight requirements that have been set; more often than not, they have been established for very good reasons.

Question your first response to family tragedies in the media.

The instinct to assign blame is a natural one, Schafer says. “We have such a love of children and a love of animals because both are sort of underdogs. Our human compassion to want to stick up for the underdog means we have this emotional need to have ... justice served."

The problem, she says, is that this desire for justice overtakes our ability to say "that could’ve happened to me.” Instead of placing blame, Schafer encourages parents to view these tragedies as teachable moments for themselves and their children alike. By treating them as opportunities to consider what safety precautions you too may have overlooked in a similar situation and emphasize the potential outcomes of failures to stay close and obey boundaries (in an age-appropriate way, of course), future incidents may be avoided.

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