“I’m running away,” he says. “I’m going to find a new family. I hate this one.”
He stomps upstairs and starts packing his bag.
“Where are you going?”
“New York City. I’m going to go live at the top of the Umpire State Building.”
“I hope you take some money; food is expensive there.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I have 600 cents. So I can buy a hamburger from the vending machine. And a soda. When I leave I can have as much soda as I want and you can’t tell me no.”
“How will you get there?”
“Train tickets are expensive, too.”
“Well, then I will just eat a hamburger and not have soda and then I will have money for the train.”
I sit down at the kitchen table and try to figure out how to handle this one. What do you do when your five-year-old child tells you he is going to run away? Do you take him seriously and hope his frustration burns itself out? Do you argue with him, or does that just cause him to dig in his heels more deeply? Do you just ignore it and hope he gets bored or distracted by a better path?
I couldn’t ignore it. This is my baby. He’s hurting. I know it isn’t just that he’s angry that screen time is over. That ordinary and completely expected event happens once a day, every day. He has a timer and gets numerous verbal cues as the end of screen time approaches.
School is rough for him this year. Really rough. Life has brought dramatic changes to our family. Our son is a dandelion seed being blown around, seeking purchase in the soil but never quite finding it. I feel guilty even as we take steps to help him.
This is so not about screen time. Or maybe it is – screen time is just the thing that bubbled to the top, following a series of tiny frustrations during school which never quite settled. Maybe I was not consistent in my rule enforcement? How many parenting tasks did I screw up since I got home from work? In the past week? Lots.
I decide to observe, make myself available for talking or hugs if he wants them, and hope for an opportunity to diffuse things in a way that he feels is on his terms. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but figure this is the least likely way to make things worse.
Here’s a heartbreaking thing about parenting nobody tells you about: sometimes the best thing you can do is just not make things worse.
He brings his backpack to me, proudly, and demonstrates how well prepared he is for his journey. Inside:
- His sketchbook, which he draws in at night when he can’t sleep.
- Pajama bottoms.
- A t-shirt.
- Two socks. One Sonic the Hedgehog, one Star Wars.
- A pencil and three crayons.
- His toothbrush, toothpaste, and swishy cup.
- A flashlight.
- A small mason jar which contains his feather collection.
When he finds a feather, I’ve always told him it means that there is an angel nearby watching over him. He picks up the feather and looks around at the sky, trying to spot his guardian. This jar of talismans and happier memories is simultaneously the least and most practical thing he packed. He’s scared, too.
“I just need my flip flops, mom, and then I can go. Can you help me find them?”
I told him that if he were really ready to move to New York City all by himself, he would have to find his own flip flops. “It’s good practice for when I’m not there to help you.”
He never finds his flip flops.
He decides to stay home.
And I pray that there will always be feathers for us to find.