What Odysseus, Roosevelt, And My Four Year Old Have In Common

September 7, 2012

Today was Jasper’s first day of school. Pre-K, but still. It counts. Sure, they’re all super tiny and barely able to carry their own backpacks, and they’ll likely not be doing much more than finger-painting and eating glue, but they’re at school. It’s almost heartbreaking, really, the way that their smallness is such that they seem dwarfed by six and seven year olds, and kinder-sized playground equipment. My heart almost broke this morning, anyway. He’s too little! I said to my inner helicopter mom, as I watched Kyle ferry him into the knee-high crowd of pre-Kindergartners. It’s too much!

My inner free-range mom, with whom my inner helicopter mom battles frequently, scoffed at this. Stop worrying. He’s a big boy. He’s an independent boy. He could practically walk here on his own.

Turns out that my inner free range mom was right. Just not, you know, in a good way. Because Jasper did, in fact, decide to walk off on his own.

It made sense to him, apparently. Class was over, everyone was getting packed up to go, the door was right there. So out he went, slipping away in the fray, and making his way toward home. Home is only a few blocks away, but we live in New York City – WE LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY – which is a slightly different proposition than living in the suburbs or somewhere less, you know, New York-y. Not that a four year old wandering off alone in the suburbs would be tremendously preferable, but still. BUT STILL. Off he went, into the wilds of brownstone Brooklyn, all on his four-year-old own.

Kyle, as it happened, was there to pick him up, and Kyle, thankfully, realized – knowing his son – that not spotting Jasper meant that Jasper had bolted. Jasper is not the type of kid that you find hunkered down in a corner, playing quietly with a train or worrying a lovey. Jasper is the type of kid who, if you can’t see him, is almost certainly not only out of your field of vision, but on another field entirely, or five or six blocks away, or somewhere at some other distance, probably hot-wiring a car. (Some other time I may tell you about the Incident At The Honesdale Wal-Mart This Past August, which involved what Wal-Mart security called a ‘Code Adam,’ and which so scarred me that I couldn’t even tweet about it, let alone blog it.) All of which is to say: Kyle knew immediately that Jasper would have left the school grounds, and set off after him, in what he hoped was the right direction, which is to say, the route that goes past the ice cream store.

Jasper, as it happened, had gone in that direction, although by the time he was waiting for the light to change at a major intersection – and here we pause to acknowledge that traffic rules, at least, he is inclined to obey – a kind and concerned and decidedly upstanding grown-up type person had spotted him and noted that it was unusual and very likely problematic for a four year old to be wandering on his own across Brooklyn and decided to intervene. Said grown-up took Jasper to a nearby daycare – please note that I have very mixed feelings about the fact that Jasper went with a stranger – whose staff thereupon called the police, or, rather, were in the process of calling the police when Kyle and one of the teachers rushed in, having spotted, from some blocks away, Jasper’s little blond head turning that particular corner. Relevant identities were confirmed, Jasper was restored to his father, and all was well.

All was well, that is, except for the part where MY HEAD IS STILL EXPLODING.

Where do I even begin with this? Where do I end? My four year old disappeared from his school while under the watch of teachers and attendants and his father. My four old was wandering the streets of Brooklyn alone. My four year old went off with a stranger. My four year old vanished yesterday and I didn’t know about it until after the fact. And here’s the thing: each one of those elements of the story confuses me. They terrify me, sure, but it’s not so cut and dry. It would be easier if it were. If it were all just – all just simply – terrifying, I could calm my pounding heart with a very large drink and a vow to never let Jasper out of my sight again. But it’s more complicated than that. In some respects, I’m glad that I didn’t know until he’d been found and order had been restored to the universe, because otherwise, I might have snapped completely and then quit my job and taken up homeschooling. And the fact that he went off with a stranger – well, that turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, because without such intervention Jasper might have wandered all the way to Williamsburg, which is a horror of its own kind.

And, of course – this, I warn you, is a little twisted – this: the small but bright flame of pride stirring in my chest that Jasper is so bold, so independent, so brave. He was done, he wanted to go home, and so he up and left. Took matters into his own hands, and marched on home. And stopped at all street crossings in the process. I do not, to understate things grossly, want him to do it again, but the fact that he did it, that he’s the kind of child that would do it, that he’s inclined to follow his own lights and make his own path, even if that path leads right out into the streets of one of the biggest cities in the world – a moment while I pause again to calm my pounding heart – is a little pride-making. My little Odysseus might keep me in a state of ongoing anxiety, but isn’t it worth it, a little? He’s only four, and yet he – to borrow from my friend Brene Brown and Theodore Roosevelt – is daring greatly. He is going forward into the world determined to do his own thing, even if that thing seems impossible, even if doing so seems impossible, even if we all would say, no, no you are much too small.

I kind of love that. But I’m also not letting him out of my sight for a few days.

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    Kyran September 7, 2012 at 9:18 am

    I love every thing about this story, except the school’s oversight, and that you both had to suffer through the horrible what-ifs. Every other bit. Kyle’s intuition. The kind stranger. The helpful daycare staff. Jasper’s confidence and competence. The happy ending. This is how the world should work. This is how, actually, it DOES work, almost all of the time. Even in New York City. Maybe especially in New York City.

    You’ll be telling the story of “the time Kyle decided to walk home” for years. He is legend. :-)

    Kyran September 7, 2012 at 9:24 am

    The time JASPER decided. Heavens.

    Her Bad Mother September 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

    I love your take on this. Because, yes.

    (And, yes, I think: ‘especially in New York City.’ Especially here.)

    Kaitlin September 7, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Cities have eyes and ears and it’s partly for this reason that I think we all ought to feel safer in them than we are taught to.

    I’m glad Jasper is alright. But I totally understand your pride.

    MKP September 7, 2012 at 9:25 am

    When I was six, on the second day of first grade, I didn’t see my mom’s car at the bus stop (which was at a Long John silver’s because I don’t know) so I convinced the bus driver to take me to my house after dropping off the other kids. Of course, my mother WAS at the bus stop and sat there panicking until my aunt drove up with me in the backseat – she’d called my house, I’d answered the phone and cheerfully informed her I was home alone and it was awesome.

    MKP September 7, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Oh, the comforting part of that story was supposed to be that I only did that once. He’s likely old enough to understand that he made some leaps in judgment that won’t fly in the future :)

    GrandeMocha September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am

    OMG! How scary!

    What did Jasper say about the experience? Was he scared? Or was he just doing what he thought needed to be done? I admire his independance. I bet he will do great things!

    Her Bad Mother September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

    NOT scared at all. Mad that he was brought back to school. He figured that he had it all under control.

    red pen mama September 7, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Oh, Catherine, I would have died. I mean, probably not, but GAH! And I do love that you have the presence of mind, the wherewithal, to be proud of his confidence. That’s your inner-free range mom winning that battle. ;) Aside from the school’s oversight (Jasper taught them a pretty fun lesson, eh?) this adventure went well. I’m sure you have a lot to say to your son, but at the end of the day, it turned out okay.

    Jo September 7, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Big, brave, smart boy. But yes, as a mother of a 4 year old who just started school, my heart is pounding at the thought. Also, can’t imagine how Kyle must have felt when he realised Jasper wasn’t there. I expect you both will need a while to recover!

    Dawn September 7, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    That is scary and horrifying and mind-blowing and thank all the gods in all the heavens that things aligned and Jasper was safely returned home. And I agree that in this case, much better not knowing until after the fact.
    I wonder if a GPS could be sewn into socks….

    rory magill September 7, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    when i was four, i walked about half a mile or so, in the dead of winter, from mckellar park to the westboro bakery. my mother had gone there to get some treats and i thought i should slip away from my guardian to see what treats she was getting. of course, by the time i arrived at the bakery, my mother had long since returned to mckellar park and was by then frantically trolling the neighbourhood and probably losing her mind. but it was no big deal for me and i didn’t really feel like odysseus. i did get a nice lemon square out of it, though.

    Ian Hancock September 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Wow! So often, my wife and I talk about how we don’t want to be helicopter parents, how we want our children to face the uncertain world, brave and confident but . . . honestly this sort of event would scare me too. Loved your perspective at the end though.

    Lucy September 7, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Sweet mother of God, thank you for the good people in the world. I’m also glad that you didn’t know this had happened until after he was found. This is a mother’s nightmare, isn’t it? The other day, my 6 year old climbed a tree at the park. I don’t know how long it took for me to find him. It was probably only a minute, but it was long enough for me to have a minor panic attack and begin screaming his name like a mad woman. My heart didn’t stop racing for another 15 minutes after that. It was more vigorous than a work out. All I could think was, “what am I going to tell his father?” seeing that my 6 year old is actually my stepson, my husband’s son. When my 2 year old daughter disappears in our own yard for more than 5 seconds, I start calling for her. It’s a primal need to protect our children, and yours has been violated. But I, too, am proud of your boy. One day, he will be a fearless leader.

    Corinne @ Have Baby Will Travel September 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I was in the kitchen making the next day’s lunches, and in the hustle and bustle of my husband heading out the door to take his mom home, and then shopping, I figured my three-year-old son had headed upstairs to play before tub time. So I puttered and tidied and then traipsed up to start our bedtime routine, and no Bub. “What do you mean you don’t know where Riley is?!” I exclaimed to my six-year-old daughter when I realized that Bub wasn’t where I was expecting to find him.

    And so began a frantic and terrifying scramble of yelling his name, checking under beds and closets, and trying desperately to piece together the last five minutes or so of a fairly typical weeknight to try to determine what exactly went down. Did he sneak in the car and try to go to his Grandma’s?! Surely my husband would have noticed him and brought him home. And of course that’s his cel phone ringing on his desk as I madly tried to call him. Did Bub try to walk to Grandma’s house?! But he wasn’t wearing pants! And his shoes are still here! Why isn’t she answering her damn phone?! And finally, “Liz! Did Riley go to your house?! I can’t find him!” “What do you mean?! He has to be there somewhere. I’m coming right over.”

    And so began another round of frantically yelling, looking, running up and down the street – too afraid to go far in case he found his way home… But home from where?! Oh God. With who?

    A few neighbors come out, bless them, and I called 911. The operator kept me somewhat lucid as I told him what I knew. He’s only three. He sometimes bolts or runs too far head for my liking but in lite of sometimes threatening, “I’m wunning away!” he never actually has. He’s not wearing pants or shoes but I think he has his woobie with him. It’s cream-coloured

    Nichole September 7, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    OK, where is the end of this story?

    Stephanie Precourt September 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    It is a fright I hope for no mom to know but also, a relief to know it all happened and ended okay.

    We lost Ivy (3) at a large baseball complex earlier this summer- Jeff was watching her at the playground but then thought I was (even though he was totally supposed to be) and we had to move our chairs and in the shuffle we realized that no one was watching her. When we ran to the playground which was right next to the parking lot, ugh, she was gone. We didn’t even know which way to look, so we just looked everywhere and here she comes with another mom. She had seen the mom earlier on the playground, found her down at the ball field, and told her she couldn’t find her mom and dad. While I was SO proud (and shocked) she knew what to do, I am still a bit shaken about it these months later. Rite of passage/whatever, so glad it ended well for us both.


    Zchamu September 7, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Good mother of all that is holy.

    The only thing I am capable of saying right now is: the kind stranger is, I think, most people. Most people would help, even in New York.

    Tarasview September 7, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    I live in a teeny tiny town of 7000 people in Northern Ontario. When my son was 6 he decided to leave school at lunch and walk home to get his sled. The thing is he didn’t normally walk to and from school and it was -40 degrees that day. He got lost and ended up walking down the side of the Trans Canada highway.

    Thankfully a wonderful fellow mother (complete stranger though she may be) noticed my too-small-to-be-alone-on-the-side-of-the-highway son and stopped. She parked her car and walked him into the nearest restaurant- Dairy Queen. He knew our phone number and she called me on her cell phone and said “Hi. Do you have a son named Owen?” I replied a slow yes, wondering where this was headed… “well, I have him here at the Dairy Queen…” it was then that my heart ceased to beat.

    As I was running out the door to drive to pick up my son I was screaming at my husband to call the damn school and find out why the HELL my son was not IN SCHOOL. It turns out he had slipped away, unnoticed at the very beginning of the break. 20 minutes later when the kids were heading inside his teacher asked “where’s Owen?” and his friend replied “he went home to get his sled” at which time all hell broke loose at the school. Teachers were outside in t-shirts searching the playground in -40, the principal was about to call the police when my husband called them. I picked up my scared and sobbing son from the good samaritan and returned to the school to find crying teachers, a crying vice-principal and a thoroughly shaken sense of security all around. All from one little 6 year old boy.

    We all vividly remember that day in our school and in our family.

    My son has NEVER so much as set foot outside of the school grounds again without permission.

    So ya. Reading your story brings back the terror of those moments for me… and I live in rural Canada. I can only imagine. NEW YORK.

    T L September 7, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Smart, brave boy with a good sense of himself….Who used it to scare everyone senseless this time. I work at a museum where we help look for missing parents all of the time. The kids always calmly finda grown up and tell us they can’t find mom and dad… Even three littlest kids know what to do when those pesky and worried parents get lost.

    Nicole September 8, 2012 at 12:20 am

    Gah! I so totally get everything,in every way, that you expressed about this terrifying situation. And in the end, so glad he is safe and hopefully less wandering in the future.

    Maggie S. September 8, 2012 at 6:02 am

    I’d have gone insane. The first time my daughters babysat, they opened the door to a stranger. He was a neighbor. In six years, he’d never spoken, never introduced himself. Yet the parent is gone less than 5 minutes and he’s telling them to let him in because his grandson has a play date. They didn’t. But so many things could have happened. My family thought I’d lost my mind. If so, I was the last one to commit to the process.

    No rush calming down. Stick with your cardiologists timeline.

    Toniann September 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    My heart pounds FOR you! I freak out when my dog gets off the leash and thats a DOG let alone a small helpless child. So glad for you that Jasper is safe and sound and while I think it’s great you are seeing the glass half full through this whole event keep that handsome boy close to you!

    Erica @ Expatria, Baby September 9, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Oh man, this sounds totally terrifying, and also badass, (as you so much more eloquently put it.) And I would be pretty much clawing my way out of my own skin were this to happen to me and my kid.
    Still, I’d like to suggest that our collective North American parantal response of EEEKKKK!! OMG DYING OF TERROR has more to do with culture than it does with actual physical danger. It sounds like J (and, a few other kids mentioned in the comment section) were actually totally cool with being unintentional free range kids, and are manifestly capable of obeying traffic signals or finding a solution to a lost parent.
    I’m using my own experience living for three years in Japan where kindergartners regularly walk to school without their parents, crossing busy intersections, and first graders ride city busses and take trains and subways all on their own to get to and from school each day.
    That is not to suggest that I wouldn’t loose my mind if my own four year old took off on her own, but just a little observation on the source of this fear.

    Alexandra September 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Oh, I’d have melted into a puddle of hot mess. I suppose it is fortunate that you didn’t find out until AFTER he was safe and sound.

    Love the concerned, good-willed city dweller. Love his sheer confidence. Yes, love that confidence — but, for the love of god, let him practice that confidence by leading on the playground… or directing traffic!

    Can’t believe this happened on the very.first.day of school. Just curious – what was the school’s response to their negligence?

    The Dirty Diaper September 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    I can 100% imagine my son doing the very same thing. It’s like there’s absolutely no send of fear. His twin sister would be too terrified to wander off, it happens to all of us though

    Better Living Through Chaos September 12, 2012 at 11:56 am

    As the mom of two older kids, ages 12 and 15, I was already thinking about how great and bold this kid is before I got to the part where you confessed your pride. Since my boys are older, I understand how Jasper’s confidence and independence will serve him well in the future. But the whole thing is terrifying nonetheless. My younger son did a few similar things like this in his early years, and it ripped my stomach out each time. Thank God for helpful strangers.

    Keitha September 13, 2012 at 11:25 am

    The part that stood out to me the most when reading this was the fact that your child “stopped at all street crossings”; he went in the correct direction of home. It would definitely make me proud. It will be a delicate thing to try to encourage that kind of spirit, but also to discourage him from doing that again, because while it is most certainly pride inducing, it is also quite terrifying.

    Molly Anthony September 15, 2012 at 10:03 am

    From a parent of an even younger child who likes to wonder off : http://www.pocketfinder.com
    – I got a free app that will track the small gps device in his bag!! I can be anywhere and see him as a dot on my screen and follow him!! I live in the burbs an still get nervous, but NYC!! My kid would not stop at a crosswalk ;) lol. Glad your story had a happy ending!!

    Laura September 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I am so impressed with Jasper’s cool-headed confidence!! I think second children must get an extra dose of self-determination. As a born-and-raised NYC girl, and now mom, I would like to say, yeah…I would freak. AND be so very proud. AND also this is entirely why we just (like, seconds ago) moved from Harlem to Norway, where our kids walk to school every day with a gaggle of their peers…in first grade, you get ‘followed’ by a rotating roster of parents, and by second grade, you walk/bike/scoot on your own, with the safety net that neighboring first graders and their chaperones are also making the trip at the same time. All this to say, you’re obviously doing something amazingly right.

    Pauline September 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I’m happy for you that everything went well here. Same thing happened to us once – not in NYC though, but terrifying nonetheless. You’re right, we should keep in mind that our children are becoming more independent day by day. On the other hand, if someone had told me that on the day the little one went out of our sight for what seemed like forever, I do not know what I would have done to that person… it takes a little while to put things in perspective.

    Crystal September 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    I am so happy to hear that all turned out well. I had a bolter – Adam. He was my middle and my most, let’s just say, adventurous. It was heart attack after heart attack until he was 15. And then it turned into a whole set of new heart attacks. :) Keep the eyes open and ears peeled!

    Marian September 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

    My husband and I are in the process of adopting, and it is stories like these that used to keep me from getting the process started, because mothering was so terrifying. Now, I read them to learn from you and the comments, the wealth of experience shared here.

    I can’t tell you how happy I am that Jasper is greatly daring, but also home safe.

    Also, I used to be a preschool teacher … Jasper was only noticed missing by Kyle???

    That is a looooong time for a child not to be noticed missing by the teachers. How did the children get in line to leave without being accounted for before leaving the classroom?

    A teacher was with Kyle, so I know the whole story is not here, hard to tell it all, but your intuition was the sign of a good question to ask the school during Open House: what is your practice at the end of class; is there a door monitor? How many times do you do a head count during the day?

    Because Jasper could have decided to leave at any point.

    The children and I used to write the class rules together on the first day and “we” would all decide that no one leaves the room without asking, or without their buddy.

    Of course, this is not to say that Jasper’s teachers didn’t do the same thing, “daring greatly” goes outside of every rule/box, I would imagine. It’s just good information to share with parents/create with the school, this rule about not leaving the classroom/premises, so that a foundation of trust can be more solidly built, rather than the worry of a constant heart attack.

    Everything can’t be avoided, I do know this, but there can be plans, at least.

    Again, good good thoughts go out to you and Kyle, and the teachers/school: what a terrifying experience that ended well.

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