There are often moments in parenting when you must choose how to respond to your child’s actions. Do you bring down the law? Do you give them grace? Or would they perhaps learn the best lesson by discovering the natural consequences of their actions?
One day in April I chose the third option, when my 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son (whom I will call "Poppy" and "Robin" here) decided that they were going to run away.
It came to my attention around dinnertime that something suspicious might be going on. Poppy came to me and asked out of the blue, "Mommy, what time tonight will you be setting the alarm?"—meaning the security system.
"I’m not sure," I responded. "Probably around the time you go to bed. Why do you need to know?"
"Never mind," she said quickly, "I just wanted to know."
At bedtime, my husband usually puts the older kids to bed while I deal with the baby. He had already kissed the younger two goodnight and was talking to the older two, and I was settling the baby in bed when Poppy appeared at my bedroom door.
"Yes?" I said. Although this is a fairly regular occurrence, she is supposed to stay in bed after goodnights, so I was a little annoyed.
"Well," she started hesitantly, "me and Robin were . . ."
"Yes?" I said again.
"Me and Robin were planning on running away tonight," she blurted. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth, as she often does after saying something she knows she’s not supposed to say.
Now this was not the first time I had heard this sentiment. In earlier instances of Poppy’s runaway plans, it was apparent that she was not trying to run away from rules or responsibilities, reasons that children often list when threatening to run away. On the contrary, Poppy just gets easily bored of routine. She is constantly asking to go new places and sleep in different rooms, so running away seemed to be just an extension of her desire to do something new. Thus, I wasn’t particularly concerned about her emotional welfare . . . only the fact that this idea kept coming up.
"Why do you want to run away?" I asked calmly.
"I don’t know . . . We just want to."
"You’re just bored and think it might be fun?"
"Well . . . yeah." (Social distancing is wearing on this one, I thought to myself.) "We have it all planned out. We walked down the road and marked the spot where we’re going to sleep."
I raised my eyebrows. "Oh, did you?" They had asked me earlier that day if they could walk around the loop that we share with a dozen or so neighbors. I had said no and told them not to go past the end of the driveway.
"Yeah, and we have all our stuff packed," Poppy continued.
"Uh-huh." Here I was facing the moment of truth. . . . Do I scold? Do I offer grace? Or do I give her exactly what she wants? I decided I had had enough of the running away requests (they were always presented more as requests than threats). I was calling her bluff.
"Well, okay then," I answered. "I guess you better go get your stuff."
She blinked, surprised. "What?"
"I said go get your stuff. You’re running away, right?"
"You’re letting us?"
"Well, you want to know what running away is like, right? Let’s see how it goes."
"Okay!" She called upstairs, "Robin! Go get your stuff!"
Soon they were headed out the door, with a surprisingly heavy load. (I learned later that they had packed all their school books—I told you they weren’t trying to run away from their responsibilities!) They both kept asking me to help them carry things, but I refused. "You’re running away," I told them. "I can’t help you when you run away."
I did want to give them the security of my supervision, however, so I slipped on some shoes and followed them out, noting that neither of them was wearing shoes. I wasn’t sure how far they were going to get, but I figured they run around in bare feet enough that it wouldn’t be a problem . . . it was just more evidence that they were not quite as prepared as they thought they were.
I had hoped that once they were out in the dark, they might have second thoughts. But the moon was high and bright that night, so it wasn’t as scary as I’d suspected. We all tramped down the driveway and started along the road, with Poppy leading the way. Robin was loaded down with supplies, lagging behind and almost dropping things. Poppy forged ahead—now calling for him to hurry up, now asking him to help carry her stuff. (I quickly nixed that one.)
Realizing that they were a bit more determined than I had surmised, I began dropping hints about the holes in their plan.
"Sooo, what if it rains?" I asked.
Robin thought about this. "We need a tent, Poppy," he said.
"I don’t think it’s going to rain," answered Poppy quickly. She reached their planned camping spot, on the side of the road a few houses down from ours, and started setting up her camp. Robin was still struggling to catch up.
"What are you going to do if someone comes by and finds you sleeping on the side of the road?" I asked.
"We’ll just tell them to go away," said Poppy.
"I don’t think they’re going to just let you stay here. You’re on the neighbor’s property, and I don’t think they’ll want two random kids sleeping near their yard."
"We’ll just be really quiet!" Poppy insisted.
"What if a policeman comes? Do you think he’s just going to let you stay here? He’s going to bring you back home anyway."
Robin was looking around at their camping spot. "We need a tent, Poppy," he repeated. I could tell his much more cautious personality was beginning to overcome Poppy’s influence.
"I’m going to have to leave, you know," I continued. "Then I’ll have to lock up the house and turn on the alarm, and you won’t be able to get in if you decide you want to come back."
"We won’t do that," Poppy retorted.
"Poppy . . ." Robin said slowly, "I think we should go home."
The darkness hid my look of triumph.
Poppy saw that her plan was beginning to crumble. "No, Robin! We don’t need to go back . . . we planned this!"
"We need to go home," Robin repeated.
"I think that would be a good idea," I commented.
"No!" Poppy protested. "Robin . . . !"
"Come on, Poppy," Robin replied, turning around.
Poppy began to cry a little in frustration. When Robin started to leave, however, she seemed to decide it wasn’t worth staying on her own. I helped her gather her things. "If you’re not running away anymore, I can help you carry them," I offered.
Poppy finally relented, and the two of them piled several of their heavy and bulky items on me. We started our walk back toward the house. The kids were fairly quiet other than Robin’s comment to himself: "I knew it wasn’t going to work."
"You know," I spoke up, "I should be giving you a punishment right now. You didn’t obey me when I told you to stay in the driveway. You lied when I asked you why you were asking about the alarm. And you know you shouldn’t be running away.
"But," I continued, "I’ll offer you a deal. I won’t punish you for any of those things if you promise to never, ever try to run away again."
They agreed—Robin a little more heartily, but both with satisfactory conviction.
"Also," I added, "I’ll let you sleep in a tent in the backyard sometime if you want. Not tonight—it’s too late for that—but maybe later this week."
This time Poppy’s agreement was more enthusiastic. We later switched to the safer and less-complicated option of sleeping on the screened-in porch, but the kids were still happy.
I think we all learned a lesson or two that night. The kids learned (I hope) that running away is a bad idea, and that you often aren’t as prepared as you think you are. And I became more convinced of the notion that sometimes the best lessons we teach our children are the ones they (more or less) teach themselves.
—JessicaPhoto credit: iStock.