IT'S BEEN SAID that having only one option is no option at all. I'm a firm believer in that. I like to have options and being placed in a situation where there's only one way out makes me apprehensive. Counting the number of exits, windows, employees, police officers—we do this to make the habit of paying attention fun for our children, but it also serves another purpose. When it comes to the planning stages of reacting to potential danger, all this information helps your child to make a decision and gives them options. We want our kids to understand that there is always more than one way to solve a problem. By allowing them to think through their situation and identify as many solutions as possible, we're giving them the tools they need to act in the face of danger as opposed to freezing.

There's something known as Hick's Law that describes the time it takes a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has. Increasing the number of options also increases the time it takes to make a decision. This concept was first put forward by British psychologist William Edmond Hick and is widely taught in law enforcement circles. But there's a common misconception regarding Hick's Law that I think needs a little clarification. Most people believe that by adding multiple solutions to a problem they're significantly increasing the time it takes to react and contributing thereby to the freeze response, but the reality is much different. Having choices gives us the freedom to weigh each option and evaluate how the outcome of that option would affect our safety. We weight these decisions well in advance of being faced with danger. That's what situational awareness is all about. Once we have a good idea of what could go wrong, and what our reactions to those events would be, choosing the appropriate solution takes only milliseconds. Options give us confidence, and that's precisely what we want for our children: for them to be confident.

When it comes to situational awareness and spotting danger, children need to understand that they have multiple options that can keep them safe. Communication, avoidance, escape, and confrontation are all valid choices, but picking the most appropriate response can be tricky for younger children. The skills they've learned up to this point will assist them in identifying the key environmental elements that aid in keeping them safe.


Communication skills are one of the most important abilities your child can develop. Being a good communicator will serve them well in every aspect of their life all the way through to adulthood. When it comes to children and the way they apply communication to escaping danger, I don't recommend trying to teach them to negotiate with an aggressor. For children, communication comes into play when an adult needs to be alerted to the presence of a threat. Let's say, for instance, that a child becomes separated from mom or dad. At this point, the child's memory should be developed enough to relay to an adult the last known position of the parent, their first and last name, and what they were wearing. If that's not enough, they should also have a phone number memorized as well as the name of a trusted relative or neighbor. I know how important it is for your child to have this information memorized because, as much as I hate to admit it, I once lost my son in a crowd so large that I had no idea how I was going to find him. I know first-hand that it can happen to anyone, no matter what your level of awareness may be, and it can happen within a matter of seconds.

It happened back in 2005. My son Joshua was eleven years old and had expressed an interest in running a 5K. At the time, I was doing a lot of distance running, and I was happy that my son wanted to join in. We registered for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Las Vegas, where we were living at the time. The race started on Freemont Street and continued snaking through the streets of North Vegas for 3.1 miles. The morning of the race, my son and I picked up our race packets, and I was beaming when I helped him pin his number on his first race shirt. The streets were packed with thousands of participants, and people were jostling for a position near the starting line. As we moved through the crowd, I respected my son's budding masculinity and didn't insist on holding his hand, but I stayed right behind him as close as I could. At one point (as most racers do), he wanted to hit the bathroom before the start. I smiled knowingly and started looking around for any sign of a porta-john. I took my eyes off of my son for a split second, and when I looked down, he was gone. I was horrified! I immediately began scanning the area. Josh has red hair, so he should have been easy to spot, but I saw no sign of him. I called his name several times, but it was almost impossible to hear over the din of the crowd and the music blasting from a set of nearby speakers.

I saw two possibilities: maybe he saw a porta-john and started moving in that direction, or maybe he continued moving with the crowd toward the starting line. I found some high ground on a nearby platform and began scanning the area near the toilets and the starting line. I spotted some local law enforcement officers nearby and knew that they had radios. I saw no sign of my son, so I made my way to the officers. As I was telling them what had happened and began giving them the name and description of my son, I saw a sight that I almost wrote off as a fear-induced hallucination ... there was my son walking up to the announcer's platform twenty yards away with a lady in a long flower- patterned dress and Ronald McDonald. Yes, that Ronald McDonald. Luckily the iconic fast-food clown was there as part of a race-day promotion. After sprinting to the platform and collecting my boy, I shook the clown's hand and thanked him for helping Josh. "No problem," he said, "that's one smart boy you have there." The whole thing had only lasted three minutes, but to me, it felt like an eternity.

After I was able to speak with Josh about what had happened, he told me that once he realized we were separated, he had done exactly what his mom had told him to do and started looking for a woman who looked like a mother. That's when he spotted the lady in the flowery dress. She had three children with her, and Josh considered her safe to approach with his problem. The lady was more than happy to help, and as they approached the announcer's stand, Ronald McDonald had stepped in to assist. Josh had already given my full name, my description, and his home phone number to the clown, who was preparing to make an announcement over the loudspeaker when I spotted them.

Shortly after that, the race began. Josh and I ran the whole course together, and he had one of the best times in his age group. I was so proud of my boy! Not just for putting everything he had into the race, but for not giving in to panic but acting in a manner that reflected the lessons he'd been given. He stayed calm, remembered what he had been taught, developed a plan, and put that plan into action. We ended up having a great time that day. The real trouble came later on when we got home. Josh couldn't wait to tell his mom how everything had gone. "How was the race, baby?" "It was great, Mom! I did really good, but Dad lost me, and Ronald McDonald saved my life. . ." I had some explaining to do.

I look back on that story with mixed feelings. I still remember the fear I experienced in knowing I had lost track of my son, but I also look back on it with pride in knowing that my wife and I had taught him exactly what he needed to know. I know we all like to think that we'd never let something like that happen, but it happens regardless. I consider myself to be a good parent, and I've gone out of my way to teach my children how to be situationally aware for this very reason. We can't anticipate everything that will happen; the more variables you add (large crowds, loud music, limited visibility), the harder everything is to manage. That's why it's so important that we relinquish some of that control to our children. It does no good to have one person panicked while the other is working toward a specific goal. Teaching them how to stay calm, identify solutions, and communicate effectively with others is the best way to ensure that they're working toward the same objective you are: their complete safety and security.

Editor's Note:  The Lead Photo in this article is from the AP Press. 

The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger Before It Spots Your Kids: Teaching Situational Awareness to Keep Children Safe by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), publication date May 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-811-7