Running away… at four

“This is my house and if you don’t like the rules you can leave!” my dad said tersely through clenched teeth, as if he were in a board meeting with some rivalrous upstart challenging his supreme authority.  I was four.

But from the start I always had some sort of fire in my gut; maybe it was pride, maybe it was a touch of x-ray vision for other people’s B.S., or some father-transmitted issue with authority figures already coming back to bite my dad in the rear, some perhaps a touch of Cool Hand Luke go-ahead-and-hit-me, but I will get back up streak of oppositionality, but I calmly took my preschool lunch pail off the kitchen counter and walked to the big front door.  I slammed it hard and loud on the way out, and stepped free into the brilliance of a fine late spring morning.

The sun shone dappled green and gold through the arcade of elm trees that lined my street in the years before the Dutch Elm Disease denuded the hood.  I walked at my leisure to the corner, a quiet cross street without even a stop sign, and I stopped.  I wasn’t allowed to cross the street.  And I was too good of a kid to break that rule.  I was a literalist, and my father had suggested that I could leave if I didn’t like his rules.  Neither he nor my mother had said anything like that I could cross the street.

Frustrated, I turned tail and went the other way, passing my own house without even looking at it and striding on my freedom march toward a better life.  But then I got to the alley that crossed the sidewalk.  It wasn’t technically a “street,” but then again I’d never crossed it without the firm grip of a grown-up on my little hand.  Not only did cars come through that alley, but trucks.  These were the last days of coal trucks, milkmen and other exotic mechanical beasts that would rumble through the gravel alley, whacking the overhanging branches and rattling the windows.  I stood transfixed, staring at the empty alley like a pioneer at an impassable gorge.

Being pragmatic, I retreated a couple of houses and found a nice spot under a tree to sit and eat my lunch.  I took my time and when I’d finished I closed up my lunch pail meticulously and glanced all around and up and down.  It must have been about 8:30am.

I can’t remember if that was the time that I walked back home and agreed to my father’s rules, or if I waited there until my mother’s car pulled up and she offered me a ride to pre-school (or maybe I got the day off, half in trouble but not really).  Some years later I learned that they had been spying on me, amused at my adherence to the no-crossing-the-street rule.

It’s taken me until now to realize that my dad probably wasn’t entirely enraged and that he might have become one of Max’s “Wild Things” in my mind.  It’s taken until now to be able to intuit how cute they must have thought that I was in my tepid foray into rebellion—or at least I hope they did.  It’s hard to know if my dad is only now losing his touch with kids (“get lost,” he said to my six-year-old nephew the other day) or if he never quite had any panache for dealing with little ones.

Whatever it means, I ran away a lot the year that I was ten, going farther and more recklessly as I raged against all sorts of forces that I didn’t understand but knew that I could not stand.  I remember that military school brochure that sat ominously on the credenza in the front hallway, a constant reminder that I could be shipped out if I didn’t tow the line (but I’m sure my parents remember that differently as well).  I do know that my kids have shown little inclination to run away—probably partly because in this age of overprotection they were terrified of what they might run into out there, and probably owing in part to the fact that the service and amenities at our house are pretty good if you’re a kid.

As a caregiver I’ve dealt with running away mostly in my group home therapist days where kids who felt largely unwanted were prone to act out against house rules and general feelings of trapped despair by going AWOL—maybe going on crime sprees, stealing cars, getting into trouble with predatory folks on the street… extremely sad and typically ending much as it did for me when I was four—with return to the fold, no matter how unappealing, and the humiliating confrontation with angry dependency.  I think about those kids, some who ended up in locked mental hospitals, some who transitioned to adult group homes, some who met tragic endings and I wonder how we might create a greater sense of home for all our collective kids.

Do your kids run away?  Did you run away when you were a kid?

Either way, here’s to dedicating today to making our houses warm and inviting homes so that we and our kids really want to live there together—and to be able to leave with love and good wishes when the time is right, not needing to run away.

Namaste, Bruce


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20 Responses to “Running away… at four”

  1. Justine Says:

    I ran away once, when I was 15, and it was a reaction to my parents’ constant fighting. A protest of sorts. I ended up at a friend’s house and called my mom from there because I felt so guilty for making her worry. When I went home the next day, things didn’t change. Even though my parents had a terrible relationship, I decided to stay and put up with it because you’re right, I liked the things I had in my house and the protest felt weak when compared to my need to be amid my own creature comforts.

    Still – it would have been nice if it did make a difference.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Poignant how kids’ guilt and their wishes for harmony in the house often mean that the kids absorb their parents’ pain. It underscores how we help others and the world by finding our way to happiness. Maybe the difference you end up making is in the effect your spirit has on those around you now.

  2. Larry Says:

    Ah yes, those great moments of total independence and “I’ll show them”. I only ran away once, when I was in high school. I think I was about 14. After some argument, with my dad I decided I’d take off, make them worry and see that they didn’t have total control. I snuck out of the house and wandered around the neighborhood for hours. Eventually realizing I had no money and that this was a crappy idea I returned home. To add insult to injury, when I got home I realized that my parents had no idea that I’d even left the house. I really showed them.

  3. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    Developmentally, my kids are just now reaching the stage where they’re learning to stay put, stop when I ask them, not cross the street without holding hands… I really hope that running away is a ways off still, even though they are now 3 1/2. I ran away three times that I remember. The first time I took my brother and we had a bunch of nonsensical items tied into bandanas on a stick, hobo style. It was raining and we very matter-of-factly told my mom we were running away, so she helped us put on our raincoats. We got to the bank of mailboxes at the corner which was our usual boundary and we pushed just a little beyond but that world felt way to unfamiliar, so we went back home. The second time I hid in the trunk of my parents’ car, hoping to make my escape the next time they drove somewhere, but I lost my patience for waiting, I think I was about nine. When I was 18, my mom read my diary and the next day I took off to a friend’s house without telling anyone where I was going (something I never did and would normally be reamed for). I stayed all day and only went home after dark and my parents acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. Because I was 18 I strongly considered leaving for real (my dad had moved out of his parents’ home at 16), as I was a legal adult, but realized I had this powerless dependency on my parents, survival in the world on my own with no money, no place to live, no job, etc was completely impractical. I just counted the days until college and spent as little time as possible with my parents.

    I like that you bring up how your parents had such a different perspective on what happened than you did. I try, as much as possible, to keep in mind Alfie Kohn’s take that it doesn’t matter what we say, what we do, how much we love our kids, it matters what our kids hear, what our kids see, and how much they *feel* loved by us.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      This notion of where we are at when we’re eighteen relates to another topic I had just been thinking about… a post for the very near future.

      I like your reference of Kohn’s ideas, and the challenge it offers us to remember that empathy means that we need to hear back from those we communicate with to confirm that our message was received. It’s in that spirit that I thank you for taking the time to share your comment.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Fascinating (and poignant) tale.

    I recall wanting to run away from home all the time. But I was too terrified of my mother to ever even venture that sort of rebellion. I found other ways – refuge in my own head, in writing, in learning a language she couldn’t speak, and eventually, in footing the bill with $$ I’d earned for 2 months away, as a teen, in Europe. Heaven.

    My own kids have never threatened to run away, nor tried. I’ve never thought about that until now. They’ve had a combination of travel (abroad) from an early age, and “home” as a safe place. But I’ve never asked if they ever thought about running away. When they’ve needed to get away – a friend’s house, or farther, I’ve pretty much always said yes.

    More to muse on.

    Of course, as a parent, I’ve had plenty of thoughts about running away. But I don’t get past where I might need to cross the street either.


  5. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    My younger son doesn’t walk yet – so, though he might be tempted when I insist on things like naptime, he has yet to run away. My older son – 2 1/2 – recently packed a handled box full of essential items like a rooster flashlight (it crows when turned on) and declared that he was “running off.” He had a big grin on his face so I don’t think his little game really counts.

    I never ran away as a kid, but I did entertain my fair share of orphan fantasies. All of those children’s novels about orphans really captured my imagination.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Maybe it’s a bit like Grimm fairy tales where in imaginal play we work out being abandoned, running away and the like—but with attuned parents it doesn’t have to escalate so much I suppose.

      As for orphan stories, I agree—you just can’t beat a good orphan story where the orphan prevails against all odds to embolden us to trust that we too can, one day, cross the busy street.

  6. Laurie Says:

    My now eleven year old threatened to run away a few times as a toddler. He’s an astute little fellow and I must admit it was tough hearing a three year old saying he was running away. I kept thinking about my friends dealing with their kids having melt downs surrounding play dough. Thanks for bringing this up. I’m sure it will come up again. It’s a shame though, he doesn’t like sandwiches so I can’t pack him a lunch.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I guess when it comes time to run away you’ll have to take him to a good restaurant and give him cash… and then wait until he’s ready to come home again. In this way parenting is becoming more of a full-service concierge endeavor than when we were kids.

  7. Jen Says:

    Last year, my then 12 year old son was asked by a school peer, not a friend, if he wanted to run away together along with another boy. Seems their plan was to sneak out at midnight, jump on bikes, meet up at the bus stop and take the bus to one of their grandmothers’ house about 100 miles away. My son declined, but did offer some advise: take toilet paper (a morsel gleaned from his dad’s forey into running away as a child–he also made sandwiches–but was hampered by the street boundaries so he head to the roof for several hours), and to turn in cash at the local supermarket for a couple of gift cards; grocery store card and phone card. Realizing that the kids may be headed for trouble and knowing that they were serious about their plan, my son notified me after school. We talked it out and since my son was worried and felt a need to act, he came to the conclusion that the best plan would be to anonomously(I am sure they have caller id :)) call the school counselor. The next day, the lunch room was abuzz with who called the parents; my son played dumb. The most interesting/disappointing aspect, was the apparent action of only one set of parents. Of course I do not know the whole story, just lunch room conversation, but one boy continued with the plan. When he realized he was stood up by his friend, he came home and was caught as he was climbing back into his house through the window! As for my own boys, I half worry that they will never leave–life is too good!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      This shows not only how good your kids feel that they have it, but how much they trust you and have good judgement and discretion about how best to help a fellow twelve-year-old with some serious angst brewing. The non-responsiveness of some parents underscores how we can help kids sometimes by being compassionate about what other parents may be going through (there but for the grace of whatever go any one of us).

      Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Linda Pressman Says:

    My husband and I dream of running away from the kids – for awhile at least, can that count? 🙂

    But seriously, I had a dad with an anger problem too and I think we all knew that if we ran away from home, or even staged a running away, he’d just tell us not to come back. My mom would have fought for us but still. After he died and my mother dated increasingly creepy guys, I remember wishing to grow up more quickly so I could get off to college already!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Sad early start for you—that only makes parenting an even bigger challenge: that of giving what we didn’t get. Yet aside from the understandable fantasy of running away as grown-ups, it’s healing to be kind and compassionate, even if it hurts, don’t you find?

  9. Deirdre Says:

    Your post reminds me of a funny story my friend told me about her attempt to run away from home as a kid. I’m not sure of how old she was, but apparently she wrote a heartfelt letter to her mom and dad that read something to this effect:

    “Dear Mom and Dad,
    I’m running away.
    Love, Sarah

    P.S. I’ll be down at Lisa’s house”


    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I love it—that’s just about the quintessential handbook on how to kindly run away.

      Perhaps this is part of the bittersweet aspect of life, we are ultimately all living on the same street, so even if we can’t quite ALL live in one house there’s truly no getting away from each other (despite all geographic attempts).

  10. krk Says:

    I ran away at age 9 or 10. I simply opened my bedroom window, climbed out,
    suitcase in hand, and walked down the quiet, dark streets and alleys until I
    reached my father’s house (about 1 mile away). I wasn’t frightened . I thought
    I would find something I was lacking. Parental love. I sat on my father and stepmother’s front door stoop until dawn, knocked on the door and said,” here
    I am. I have come to live with you.” He was kind, but said everyone would be worried and took me back home. Not much was said by either household.This is sad, but also my first real act of bravery. I learned to be more compassionate at
    this early age, I was always “picking up strays”.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I guess the silver lining of feeling the forlorn stray ourselves is that it sensitizes us to the feelings of other strays. Still, sad to think of a kid just waiting alone for the sun to knock on a door that would not truly open to them. :(,

      Namaste and hugs for that nine or ten year old

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