When I was very young I stuffed a backpack full of comic books, sandwiches, and trinkets as I set off to discover a new world…a world without my parents. I ran away from home. I hopped the fence in the back yard and paused on the other side, the perfect place to start my new life living alone AND be able to witness my parents’ dismay as they searched frantically for me. Front row seats! I made base camp and hunkered down for the long winter ahead of me, but I was prepared so long as I rationed my Skittles and PB&J Sandwiches. Day became dusk, dusk became night, and I became restless. Why was no one looking for me? I’d left a long note explaining why I’d left home and how displeased I was with the cruel punishment of having to brush my teeth twice a day, the bathing regimen, and the rules around doing homework. Still…no one came. I had announced that I was going to run away and had clearly not shown up for dinner! Still…no one came. Then it hit me! They must be searching for me in the front yard! I packed up base camp, climbed the fence again, and snuck up to the house. Much to my surprise, my mother and father were sitting calmly in front of the TV watching the news. Where was the APB? Why were there not helicopters with search lights? How come people weren’t trudging through the fields looking for me with hounds?!!! I ran away dammit!!!
I decided to make camp in the tree fort in our backyard, it was quite dark and it would be nice to sleep somewhere familiar before heading east for New York City in the morning. The city was only 1,380 miles from Wichita, KS but it seemed quite achievable on the Rand McNally road atlas I had swiped from the library. Damn…out of Skittles…I’ve really got to be careful with my rations, there’s a long road ahead of me. If Alvin and the Chipmunks could go around the world in “The Chipmunk Adventure” movie I could make it to New York. And if I can make there…well, you know the song. I took a large bite out of my last PB&J sandwich as I debated where I could find a hot air balloon in the morning. Supplies were running low. I needed to occupy my mind to prepare it for the journey. I skimmed a few Mad Magazines I’d brought for the trip along with a few Spidermans. I’d read these before. If only I had new comics! I wonder if you can trade PB&J sandwiches for comic books? Surely the good man at the comic store will barter for a sandwich made with Jiff Crunchy Peanut Butter. I finished the last PB&J sandwich. Damn. Now its just me…and Apple Bear. Apple Bear had been with me since the beginning, a gift on my 1st birthday. He was an orange bear wearing a blue bib with an apple on it. He squeaked when you hugged him which was comforting when I was lonely.
Shhhhhh! Apple Bear! You’ll give away our position!
I looked towards the house. There was no movement. Surely they heard Apple Bear and would come running to the back door to see if I’d returned only to have their hearts broken when I stayed hidden. It would crush them! They’d never know what to do… The backyard lights went out. My parents were done watching the news and my dad had turned off the lights!
<SQUEAK!> <SQUEAK!> <SQUEAK!>
Fine. So they’re not looking for me. I’m still running away. I’m just going to stay here till they get worried and THEN I’ll run away. Seconds turned into hours, hours to days, and days into years as time passed in and out of a decade and back over a millennium. About 10 minutes had passed. <SQUEAK.> Apple Bear was hungry and scared…I was fine. <SQUEAK.> Okay, okay, okay…you talked me into it. Apple Bear wanted to go back inside and how could I say no to those button eyes? I gathered my camp into the backpack, climbed down to the ground, and tip-toed across the yard to the back door. It was unlocked. I came in and found there was no dinner waiting for me at the kitchen table. There was no fanfare as I walked in the house. All was quiet and normal. I dumped the backpack in the hall and walked into my parent’s room to find them in bed reading. “I’m back!” I announced. “Okay,” said my dad. “I’m just staying for the night,” I assured them. “Sounds good,” my mother answered. They didn’t really look up from their books. I left their room.
That night Apple Bear and I tried to sleep but couldn’t. Why had my parents not cared that I ran away? I could be half way to Kansas City by now! The thought made me shudder…alone in the dark somewhere in the Flint Hills. I was happy to be back in my bed, my back hurt from trying to sleep in a tree, and the wind was howling outside. My mind raced and at last, sleep took me.
About 30 years later my son Max, a mere 3 years old, tried to run away twice in a week. Granted, these were smaller escapades but they were very intentional moves. In my recent entry, Max ran away at an event and hid because he wanted to play alone. Following that incident that rattled me to the core as a parent (thinking I’d lost my son in a crowd) Max and I had a long conversation about running away and what it meant. To my surprise, he ran away days later when my wife picked him up from school. He took off running from the front door of the school, sprinted down the sidewalk, and Kate had to track him down by car and then get out to football tackle him. He was perceiving this all as a game. When I came home from work that night I found him sitting at the table eating alone as Kate told me the story in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe he’d done this! He could have been hit by a car! We had just talked about this. I was beside myself, so I decided to do something bold and make a statement that he wouldn’t soon forget. “Do you trust me?” I asked Kate. She looked concerned.
I walked out front and placed a lock on the gate to our fully enclosed backyard without Max seeing me. When he finished his dinner I said, “Max…come with me.” I escorted him to the back door, walked him outside, and sat down on the back stoop with him to discuss running away. We discussed how he had run away because he wanted to be alone. So, I gave him what he asked for and said, “Okay Max, you are free to run away and be alone.” Then I walked back inside and closed the door behind me. Max wasn’t sure what to do at first and kind of played, then started fake crying. Day became dusk, dusk became night, and Max became restless. Why was no one looking for him? It had been 15 minutes. He sat down and waited on the back porch. When that didn’t work he started kicking my grill. I came out and started packing up the yard as if winter was coming, “Oh…hey Max, what are you still doing here? I thought you’d be half way to Kansas City by now.” Before he could ask to come inside I looked up at the stars and said, “No moon tonight…going to be a dark and cold night…winter’s coming.” Then I went back inside, closed the door behind me, and turned off the porch light. The tears began. Kate, Dodge and I sat on the couch and watched TV while Max looked in through the window, like my parents did to me all those years ago. Kate and I counted the minutes on the clock wanting nothing but to go outside and scoop him up into a hug, but we pretended to not hear him.
It tore my heart out!
Max was outside for less than 25 minutes, of which he probably played for about 15. When he plays outside this time of night he might be out for over an hour. It was a warm night and he was appropriately dressed. All was fine, except the situation had been turned on him. I went outside when the fake cries stopped and I couldn’t pretend to not hear him any longer. We sat on the stoop and once more discussed running away. I asked him if he wanted to come back in, to which he said he did. I then asked if he was going to run away again because if so, I didn’t want to waste my time reading books and cuddling. He said he would not run away and ran into my arms for a hug instead. I held him and said, “Max, you may come inside but first, you have to create the rule about what your punishment will be if you run away.” Kids are told so many rules when you they’re young. Put your shoes on, stay in line, go to bed…so many rules that are being blindly handed down to them by adults. Max is at the age where he’s wondering who put the adults in charge and why? Max thought for a bit then said, “Running away is against the rules.” I nodded and said, “That’s a good rule.” Max continued, “…and If I run away again I’ll have to live outside in the dark.” I hugged him again and said, “Yes, if you run away that would mean you were running away from Mommy, Daddy, Dodge and this house.” I prodded further, “That’s the consequence of your own actions, what happens if you break the rule and run away from Mommy or me like you did today and we have to chase you?” Max thought some more and said, “The rule is that I go to bed without books or cuddles.” I agreed to Max’s rule and we shook on it and affirmed what it meant. We went upstairs, Max brushed his teeth, he used the potty, and he climbed into bed without books. Max hugged Muffin, his stuffed bunny rabbit. “Did you miss Muffin?” I asked. “Yes,” said Max. “Is it good to be back home?” I asked. “It’s good to be back home,” Max replied. “Are you going to run away again?” I asked. “No,” said Max, “…and if I do I go to bed without books or cuddles.” I nodded and asked, “…and who made the rule?” “I did,” said Max. “Its my rule,” he said as he rolled over and pulled the covers up to his neck. He was asleep before I left the room. Max…the king of all wild things.
The topic of running away has not been an issue since and this weekend Max started playing in the front yard by himself, respecting the boundaries set forth about not riding his bike into the street. There are rules about what happens with Max if he breaks the rules, but Max is now setting the rules and self enforcing them. Max is also aware of the positive example he needs to set for his little brother, Dodge, whom he helps obey the rules to keep him from danger. Sometimes the best punishment is to give no punishment, rather the perception of consequence. Max was never grounded to the back yard, he was never told the few minutes outside were a punishment, and he was free to do what he wanted. His experience outside was the realization that when he got what he asked for it wasn’t what he really wanted. He realized the consequences of his actions. He created his own punishment, and then…his own rule. He’s very happy to have created a new rule and the reprimand that comes with it when (if) the rule is broken. Kids are kids and rules will be broken…but running into the street was not something I was going to mess around with. Max is much younger than I was when I packed up and ran away to the backyard with Skittles and PB&J’s, but I get why my parents didn’t budge all those years ago. I’m not saying we should be tossing our kids in the backyard and jumping to extreme consequences…but when it comes to running away and risking that precious three-year old life I love and value so much I’ll do anything to keep him safe. I’m also a big fan of making hugs, affection, and positive reinforcement a crucial part of every parenting decision I make. You never know…one day you’ll wake up and your kid will be a big stinky teenager who is too cool for hugs. When they run away or do something beyond stupid at that age, take them down to the city jail and ask the on duty officer if they’d be willing to lock them up for a few hours…or send them to boarding school. It worked for me, albeit a performing arts school. 😉
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