Here’s the slightly edited story of what happened at our house a few weeks ago (originally written on Twitter):
· My 9-yr-old says he’s running away because his sister is annoying. He’s packed Legos, his stuffed jaguar and four peanut butter sandwiches.
· So far, he’s made it to under the porch, where he’s sitting on an old tire eating his first peanut butter sandwich.
· He just came back and asked for an umbrella and a map to Alaska. He added his Greek Mythology book to his backpack. And a rubber snake.
· He says the rubber snake is to use as a whip. I can’t find a decent map showing how to get from Asheville to Alaska.
· The front porch just became Alaska. Now he’s requesting orange juice. I told him we don’t serve runaways here without cash up front.
· He’s already eaten all four peanut butter sandwiches. He might need to go stand outside Greenlife and sing for his supper.
· Just had vision of my son becoming that guy with the dreads who plays the flute outside Greenlife everyday.
· So the runaway is back. Says Alaska is too cold and wet. Speedy (the stuffed jaguar) didn’t much like it there.
· Seems that Asheville, even though rife with evil sisters, ain’t so bad. Particularly as there’s lots of orange juice here.
I’m not sure whether or not I handled my son’s threat to run away well. I did sense almost immediately that he wasn’t serious. If I’d thought he was earnest in his desire to leave, I would’ve reacted differently. I probably wouldn’t have written about it. As it is, I let him read and edit this slightly to avoid embarrassing him. Too much.
In this situation, I think my son’s unconscious goal was to emotionally manipulate his sister. She woke me up that morning by dramatically flinging open my bedroom door and crying: “He’s running away, and it’s all my fault.”
She tried to stop him as he headed toward the door. I told her to let him go, then went outside and talked to him for a while. Once I realized he wasn’t going far, and he just wanted to be alone, I went back inside and talked to her. I made a couple of jokes about his packing priorities, and my daughter started to see the humor of the situation. We also talked about how much my son needs time alone, and how she needs to respect that. I explained that his occasional desire for solitude doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her. It’s just who he is.
I was the same as a child, but back then, I was allowed to wander the woods all day without having to check in regularly with my parents — as long as I was home for dinner. I try to give my boy some of the same freedom, within boundaries, in a world that’s a little different from the one I grew up in.
It’s natural and normal to want to get away from your life now and again — even if you’re a kid. And, of course, running away has been dramatized as romantic and adventurous in books and movies. The day after the “incident,” I talked with my kids about what the realities of truly running away might look like. My goal was to de-romanticize the idea. Especially as my daughter is middle-school aged — prime time for thinking the dramas of adolescence might be improved by escaping parental restrictions.
Obviously, if a child often threatens to run away or manages to do so successfully (i.e., disappears and has to be “found”), it’s probably time to find professional help — for the child and the family. Because there are true dangers out there for runaways — though obviously some kids are savvier, or just plain luckier, than others.
I haven’t heard another word from my son about running away. Since that day, I’ve encouraged him to spend more time outside on his own, and I’ve asked his sister to try to let him be and take care of her own needs — even if that means chattering to me about her pre-adolescent feelings and concerns for the half hour a day that he’s not around.
God grant me patience, please.