Monday, July 26, 2021

Running Away From Home

As a boy, someone read me a story about a boy like me who had run away from home. The joke was that he hadn't actually run away from home, but had rather pretended to by hiding himself under the dining room table. In the story, his mother had regularly checked on him, bringing him snacks and what not. It sounded fun, so I tried it, announcing to my mother that I was going to run away from home. She said she would miss me, helped me pack a parcel of crackers and cheese, filled a canteen with water, and set me "free."

I played the game for a couple of hours, found it far duller than had the boy in the story, then emerged to announce that I had come back home. 

It seems like the subject of "running way from home" came up often when I was a boy, in storybooks, movies, and as a topic of conversation amongst my neighborhood playmates. And while I never met anyone who had actually followed through with it, I recall many games that involved packing up as if we were going run away or hiding out somewhere imagining that we had. There were still some undeveloped parcels of land in our suburban neighborhood, which were the remaining scraps of what had once been an extensive pine forest. These were "the woods" where we often played these games of being on our own in the world.

No one told us that actual run-aways were typically trying to escape from abusive or neglectful home lives. The stories we knew were of adventures. Even the story of the boy who had run away to under the dining room table had adventures. As a preschool aged child, I continued to play at being lost. I once hid behind the ironing board in the hallway closet for so long that my mother started looking for me at the neighbors' houses. Under the bed was another good place to disappear. As an older boy with a bicycle, getting lost in the world became a regular thing, as we roamed farther and wider. And we did have adventures. We would be chased by strange dogs. We found pools of standing water with tadpoles and mosquito larvae. We dared one another to step onto "Hampton's Land," where it was rumored that old man Hampton roamed the woods with a gun to chase off trespassers. It was particularly exciting when we met kids who we didn't know. We often framed them in our games as "enemies," hiding from them, running from them, or even taunting them if they didn't seem too threatening.

We once ran into a clutch of "enemies" in one of those scraps of woods. We were far from home and they began to insult us, so we insulted them back. Before long the kids had run off, leaving us the apparent victors. Moments later, however, we spied them returning with a stern looking adult. We'd never ridden our bikes so fast as we made our escape from the scolding we had probably earned. I didn't feel safe until I was back at home, bike stored (hidden really) in the garage.

In both fiction and in life, the story always ended with returning home. Like Max in the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are, there comes a time, no matter how wild the rumpus, when one misses home. We didn't identify with the runaway Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, nearly as much as we did with Wendy, John, and Michael, the runaways who would eventually return to their home. As for the Lost Boys, they were the saddest of all having fallen from their "perambulators" to find themselves in a kind of purgatory with no future and no past.

In our current age of "safety" and hyper-vigilance I worry sometimes that our obsession with having our eyes on the kids at all times, robs them of the opportunity to "run away" or "get lost." Researcher and author Peter Gray asserts that the current generation's fascination with video games and online platforms is at least in part due to this urge to "get away" and experience life without the constant mitigation of adults. This is important play, even as it might disturb us, especially when the children have hidden too well (as I did behind the ironing board) or explore concepts like "running away from home." Children know that their destiny is to fly the nest, a daunting idea, especially for a very young child. These games  are how children begin to explore both the world and themselves in the world without an adult forever at their side. 

We live in a world, however, in which many of the freedoms that past generations enjoyed have been lost. For many kids, the internet is the neighborhood in which we once got lost, which is to my way of thinking a poor substitute and, frankly, in many ways far more dangerous than "the streets." Our preschools and child cares are often so focused on "safety" that we have forgotten that children need opportunities to explore this type of play, to find themselves "in the world" and "on their own." Obviously, we can't let preschoolers roam the neighborhood, but we can provide boxes and nooks, corners where adults don't tread, and other opportunities for "getting lost," for hiding, and for adventure. Sometimes we must turn our backs as the children play, leaving them to solve their own problems, to figure in out, and yes, as in all the stories, to have their hearts broken, to be frightened, and to find their way back home.

We have designed this sort of play out of childhood in recent decades with the result being that today's children are growing up under full-time adult supervision, not a healthy situation for children or, for that matter, adults. 


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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