This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the live storytelling event and podcast, “All Y’all”, during which I told the basics of this story. While the podcast version turned out quite a bit different – much more in there about me and how my mom’s death when I was 14 informs my parenting – the nut of the story is below. Thanks for reading!
My 8-year-old daughter ran away for 45 minutes yesterday.
It was a carefully orchestrated protest about inequity and social justice. I bought her twin brother a CHIPOTLE BURRITO for lunch after his eye appointment while she was still in school. Johnnie Cochran himself wouldn’t be able to get me acquitted if she were to press charges. So really, what choice did she have but to dash upstairs while I was distracted with the toddler, quickly pack a bag, grab her pooch’s leash, and set off to make her own destiny?
After about 20 minutes, it became clear that this was no ordinary dog walk. Henry set off on his scooter to look for her and came back, worried and empty handed. For my part, I’ve had to learn to ride the edge of the emotional wake churned up by my high strung daughter, who is so like me, adopting the false calm voice of telemarketers or Sesame Street hosts in an attempt to reel her back. But if I’m honest, that’s just my strategy to keep from going batshit crazy with frustration and running away myself.
I knew she would not stray from our small three-by-three block neighborhood, I knew she’d be back soon, and I knew that her dog would tear out the jugular of anyone who got close to her. The bigger question was – how loud should I yell at her when she came back? (There was once a priest at my Catholic middle school who would ask, “Just how hot ARE the fires of hell?”)
But the funny thing about the fake calm voice is that it does sometimes actually calm me. I breathed. I backed up. I gave her a little space in my head and heart. I realized that my anxiousness was less about her running away than my own tiny inequity protest. To be frank, I was a little pissed she was running away for such an unfair reason. A burrito! I mean, what was I supposed to do – pull her out of school at noon to deliver her burrito and keep things perfectly even? After ten more minutes – I went down the street to look for her with her two-year-old brother, who we affectionately call Loki, god of chaos. Loki insisted that he push the empty recycling bin along with us, so – for the visual – it was me and what appeared to be an independently moving garbage bin rolling down the middle of Maryland Ave. When I saw her a block away, with her overstuffed backpack slung over one shoulder, she turned away from me and started trotting in the opposite direction. I shouted, “Are you running away?”
“I wish you wouldn’t”
“I love you and can’t live without you.”
“Okay. I hope you come home soon.”
I turned around and walked back home. I could sense her taking peeks over her shoulder to see if I would turn around and come after her, but I did not. I worried that maybe I should have, maybe I was teaching her that my love is conditional, that I lied when I said I would go to the ends of the earth for her, that her take-away would be that I simply didn’t love her enough to chase her down the block. But other seemingly well-adjusted adult friends reported similar things that they shouted at their children’s retreating backs or their parents called after them:
“Stay off the streets, take warm clothes and have fun!”
“Write when you find work!”
“Your brother will want to sleep in your room!”
And less validating, but my favorite: “I never ran away, but I once tucked my hair up under a Braves cap and pretended to be a visiting British boy cousin for five hours at a family reunion. No one said anything.”
In letting her run away – then come home when she was ready – I was trying to tell her: I love you enough to let you push away from me. I love you enough to let you test your own feet out in the world, to pretend you’re one of the Boxcar Children while you eat your easy-peel clementines and crackers in the neighbors’ lawns like a tiny hobo. I love you enough to let you experience the fear that comes with true independence and then find your way back again, and learn you will be all right. All on your own.
Who hasn’t run away, just once? At least to the end of the driveway? To experience both the heady intoxication of being alone and free on the earth – as well as the terror of being alone and free on the earth. I decided that in at least this one instance with Charlotte, I won’t curtail the headiness and I won’t soothe the terror. Because experiencing the full arc of both of those emotions during her little 45-minute social experiment will hopefully be just one more stepping stone to growing into a resourceful and resilient adult. An adult who feels brave enough to chart her own course but careful and wise enough to look out for herself. An adult that loves to spend time with me but doesn’t live in my basement.
Charlotte came back, of course. About 5 minutes after I walked in. She would have probably lasted another 30 minutes but her dog had taken off after me back to the house. When she came in, I took my time finishing what I was doing, then casually helped her unpack her bag: a pillow that doubles as a stuffed animal/nightlight, four books, the remains of her snacks, and a dollar. I complimented her on such thorough packing and attention to survival detail, and said that I bet she’d like some hot chocolate. It wasn’t until she was in the bath later that night that we talked about the dangers in what she did and how it could have been so worrying.
It is such a painfully thin line to walk between wanting to tell my children that the vast majority of the world is good and kind, AND — we must be aware of and protect ourselves from the very small 1% who isn’t. I want my children to look both ways before they cross the street, to not talk to strangers, to not be dangerously naïve, but I also don’t want them to look at the world through fear-narrowed eyes and see danger and otherism everywhere. Charlotte, ever analytical, asked me to figure out what 1% of the world’s population is, and then said, “Waitasecond — there are 70 MILLION bad people in the world????”
The whole notion of free range parenting has been a hot topic of discussion lately, led in part by Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who let their 10 and 6-year-old children walk a mile home from libraries and playgrounds through tony neighborhoods in Bethesda, Md. recently and were investigated by police and child protective services. It made national news. While Maryland officials later cleared the Meitivs of child neglect charges, it spawned a heated discussion of what constitutes neglect and child endangerment. (Many also pointed out that no one even notices the children alone on the streets in low income neighborhoods just a few miles south of the Bethesda in Anacostia, DC.) For those of us who grew up in the 1980s or earlier, childhood was, by its very essence, free range. So much so that that phrase was never used because it was easier and simpler to just say “childhood” or “parenting.” Not only our neighborhoods, but surrounding creeks, ditches, wooded lots – all were open for exploration without parental guidance or scrutiny. For all the hang ups we experienced as kids latch-keyed to our divorced chain-smoking Boomer parents, we had self-exploration and resilience – generationally speaking – in spades.
I know we have some greater dangers and considerations now – and not just of the boogeyman variety. Distracted drivers on the roads, fewer open spaces, Internet predators, easier access to drugs, crushing levels of homework and school pressures on children. And frankly, I’m a total worrywart about my kids too. I hover and helicopter most of the time, eavesdropping and correcting grammar in their conversations from one room over, bounding up the stairs at the first cry of a fight. I am conflicted on this issue, and I will leave the more nuanced discussions of childhood development, psychology and cultural perceptions of – and realities in – modern day safety to the experts.
All I can say from my vantage is that I want my children to explore the world, and thereby have full range to explore and know themselves – and I’m simultaneously scared as hell at every horrible scenario my overactive imagination can cough up. But I do think Maurice Sendak, the famed children’s book author, was spot on when he once said that a child needs to explore something a little scary when she is feeling safe, when she has boundaries she can trust. He was describing why his beloved Where the Wild Things Are was so beguiling for generations of children, who needed to explore not only the monsters under their beds but also their own potential to become a monster, within the safe confines of a book’s pages and their bedcovers. Exploring those issues from safe places inoculates us, in a way, from experiencing the most devastating effects of those fears in real life.
When Charlotte and Henry play, together or with their friends, they play orphans whose parents died tragically (thanks, Disney), or stowaways, fugitives and castaways stuck on raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, or as members of a ragtag band of kids living off the land using giant leaves as dishes. It feels kind of funny to be walking by them with a basketful of warm, folded laundry – an example of how I spend my nearly every waking moment giving them love and comfort — and hear them fantasize about deprivation. But it is because of that total security that they are able to play out and conquer fears. This is important organizing. It’s foundational for resourcefulness. They can play with the notion that every bit of their security could be destroyed and “here’s how I will survive” and “let’s make an imaginary berry smoothie.”
I know that for me, playing orphan on a deserted island, spending long, unsupervised hours building a fort by the neighborhood creek, and a couple of attempts tying a handkerchief to a pole to set out on my own, have a good bit to do with my own resilience and belief in myself.
And for that reason, I know I won’t be asking Charlotte how she tore the knee of her new navy leggings or what was going through her mind when she used an orange peel as a bookmark and scrawled an inscrutable note in the margins of a book that day. For her to be the grown woman who will stand straight on her own, yet lean towards me when she needs to, I need to let her have the space for some mysteries in her own journey.