A dad writes: “My four-year-old ran away in a public place. And I let him.”

Video by Sunday Night

It’s a thought that strikes fear to anyone’s heart – what if my kid walked off in public? What would actually happen? Where would they go and how would they fare? Would a kind adult help them? Would they get lost, or could they find their way back? Or would it go horribly wrong – heaven forbid, would a malicious adult take advantage?

We don’t often get a chance to answer these questions, but recently I was fortunate enough to find the opportunity. The outstanding people at Soul of Sydney were holding their legendary “Funk in the Park” party in Hyde Park, as part of the Sydney Festival. Live music is a rare treat these days, so we happily jumped on a bus and made the trip into town. A bunch of people grooving to good DJs through a thumping sound system on the grass is always a welcome way to spend an afternoon.

On this particular day, out boy was feeling particularly adventurous, he had already run off and been chased down by Mum a couple of times. Next time it was was my turn, and I was told to catch him quickly and give him a strong talking to. But as I closed in on him, curiosity struck, and I held back instead, to try and see if we could all get an idea of how it would actually play out if this scenario was followed through.

"How can they really come to understand the consequences of what happens if they walk off?"

It’s a rare experience for any kid, especially these days, to be unsupervised out there in the world like that. A crowd of people in a public place is an important environment to familiarise oneself with, and the opportunity to be able to explore it, undirected, without being distracted by instructions from adults is, well, priceless really.

Because it’s all too easy to succumb to the impulse to pull them back. “No, wait, stop, hey, come here”. But then what happens if one day, they do escape without our noticing? Neither we nor they will have had any experience which could prepare us for it. It begs the question, how best can we prepare for such a situation? How can they really come to understand the consequences of what happens if they walk off? And how often does the opportunity for a learning experience like this come up? Trial runs are invaluable.

So, I played detective and tailed the little bugger, hiding behind light poles and crouching behind people and such to see what he would do.

He went out the gate of the party and just kept exploring. It was next to the big fountain in Hyde Park, and he had a good time looking at the statues. He went a little way down the tree lined boulevard in the middle of the park, before coming back to do a lap of the water. At one point he did a cheeky wee in the fountain. The whole time I was hanging back, watching close enough to keep him safe but far enough that he wouldn’t notice me.

Advertisement

What was interesting was that no one really stopped to check on him. This was another key part of the experiment – to see how the public would react to an apparently lost child. A few people paused and looked around to see if he was supervised, but when they saw no evidence of any supervision, they just shrugged and kept walking. One obnoxious woman loudly wondered “Eugh, where is the mother?” She’s inside the gig watching a show, and his dad is looking after him ma’am. You’d hope, anyway. Don’t bother checking though, just make some snide remarks instead, that’ll do it.

After a good 20 minutes or so, he seemed to snap out of his reverie and come to his senses. He started to look around and realised that he doesn’t have Mummy or Daddy nearby, and he’s not sure where is. He looked pretty concerned, and as if it was about to escalate to proper fear. Unfortunately, at this point I’d gotten too close, and he spotted me before too long, and I could see a wave of relief wash over him.

LISTEN: Our podcast for imperfect parents discusses at what age it's appropriate to let your child go camping alone. Post continues after audio.

"Hello Leo."

"Hi Daddy."

"Did you walk away?"

"Yes."

"Did you know where we were?"

"No."

"And was that good?"

"No…"

We were both pleased to see each other and went back in to the party and had a great time and no one ran off again. Later that night we got to have an important conversation. At a pause in dinner, I asked, "So today, when you ran off, you got lost didn’t you. You didn’t know where we were and you didn’t know where you were. How did that feel, were you a bit scared?”

“Yeah.”

“So this is why you mustn’t run away. It’s important to always tell us where you’re going, and listen when we say to stay with us. Because otherwise, we won’t know where you are, and you won’t know where we are. Do you understand?”

“Yes Daddy.”

It felt like a pretty powerful teaching moment, and I think it may have sunk in.

"We were both pleased to see each other and went back in to the party and had a great time and no one ran off again."

So I guess this is a message to parents:  Consider checking your impulses to pull kids back. Modern kids are controlled pretty much all day every day, from start to finish. Having the chance to explore the world on their own terms, without someone in their ear, is so crucial. Cherish the opportunity, and nurture that independent spirit. Wherever possible, let them figure things out for themselves. It’s good for them - to give their minds a chance to go up a few gears, and it’s good for you - to watch and see what they actually do.

The best way to get a kid to never touch a stove is to let them touch it once. This is a metaphor, don’t literally do this. But also, if it does happen, don’t worry about it too much. But definitely make sure you apply all appropriate medical treatments. And again, don’t literally do this.

They love you, respect you, believe you, and hopefully some of the time they even listen to you. But the truth is that nothing you say will ever come close to the power of them experiencing it themselves. So if you can do it safely, let them go. You’ll all learn a lot.

LISTEN to the full episode of our podcast for imperfect parents, below. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION
FROM OUR NETWORK