Recently, my son, 8, and daughter, almost 6, told me they were running away from home. They loudly stomped through the house with their knapsacks, collecting random pieces of clothing, beanie babies and stuffed animals—what is necessary for life on the street. I asked them where they’d go, and they replied that they hadn’t yet thought of that but would let me know once they figured it out. This momentous decision came on the heels of a conflict over use of my iPhone. My son had been playing Minecraft on it for well over an hour, and I, with deep regret that I ever allowed him to touch my phone, insisted that he give it back and take a much-needed break from any screens. He became angry and declared his intention to run away. When they aren’t fighting, my son and daughter are thick as thieves, and so she decided it would be fun to join his cause and run away with him.
There are multiple good ways and bad ways I could have responded. A part of me wanted to laugh out loud—it really is funny to see an eight- and six-year old packing their bags, knowing full well that they have no real intention of leaving. It’s even funnier to see their choices of what to pack—like, their fidget spinners. But another part of me knows that my son, the ringleader here, is trying to express something really important: it can feel really frustrating when someone else is calling most of the shots. “Brush your teeth.” “Put on your shoes.” “It’s time to practice piano.” Tonight, he was building something in Minecraft that meant something to him, and I set a limit—a good and necessary limit, in my mind—that he experienced as too controlling and so threatened to run away as a way of reclaiming a sense of power. I felt for him.
I, too, attempted life as a runaway. A family story that is often shared and laughed about was my own aborted attempt to run away from home when I was six years old. My parents were away, and close family friends (like an aunt and uncle to us) were entrusted to care for me and my four siblings. In our kitchen was a large, oval table at which we sat for our typically chaotic dinners. I can remember becoming enraged when I was told that I could not leave the table until I finished my green beans. I slammed my fork on the table and announced that I was leaving.
This is how I remember what happened next: Everyone laughed. With ferocity, I left the table and found a paper bag into which I could pack my clothes. I ran up the stairs as my older siblings chased after me, taunting me. After filling the bag with as many clothes as I could fit, I headed to the front door, where my older brothers, in addition to their howls of laughter, offered me an umbrella and some hard candy, “in case you get hungry.” As I walked out the door, I heard my sister say, “Be careful of strangers.” They continued to laugh and yell “goodbye” as I made my way down the street. In a matter of minutes, my strident attitude was replaced with terror. On our not-very-well-lit cul-de-sac, it was dark. I turned around and saw that my siblings were now quiet, and my “uncle” had followed me. We sat down on the curb together, where he was able to convince me, rather easily, to come home.
In the years since, I have had many moments when I remembered this scene with anger, convinced of my siblings’ cruelty to me and reminded of how misunderstood I often felt in my family. In more recent years, I’ve looked on the scene with much greater compassion—for myself and for my family. As adopted children, my siblings and I struggled, I believe, to understand and deal with fears of abandonment. I suspect that my siblings’ taunts were, on some level, the only way they knew how to cope with a very deep anxiety that I, a loved one, might leave them. When I returned to the house, I wasn’t forced to return to my uneaten plate of green beans. Instead, I made my way to the bedroom that I shared with my sister and began to unpack my clothes. My sister came into the room, grabbed my arm, and began to sob. “Promise me that you’ll never, ever do that to me again!”
I’ll bet that the members of my family remember the story of when I attempted to run away somewhat differently. Memory can be very tricky. And this is where many families, like mine, get into trouble: instead of being curious about the differences in our memories and what they reveal about our unique, internal worlds of experience, we often get caught up in arguments, sometimes bitter, about whose version of “what happened” is the right one.
I wonder how my son will remember the day he attempted to run away. I hope he will remember that his sister, who loves him desperately and looks to him much more than to me for direction in the world, joined his cause. I hope he will remember that the part of me who took his concerns seriously won the day, over the part of me who wanted to laugh at his 8-year old ways. And I hope he will remember that I told him in no uncertain terms that while I could understand his frustration, I wanted him to stay because I cherish him so much and don’t want to even imagine living in the world without him.
Here is one thing I will remember: later that night, after reading him a story, I lay quietly next to him. He snuggled closer and said, “Mom, I really wasn’t going to run away today. If I had, I wouldn’t have your phone to play Minecraft. And even if I did have your phone, I wouldn’t have WIFI.” And with that, he turned to his side and peacefully fell asleep.