Parenting & Family Matters Columnist, Tania McCartney.
Three days ago, I was sitting at the computer, digging deep into the recesses of my brain to write something superlative, when there was a sudden, sharp rap at the door. I glanced at my watch. Ten past three. Couldn’t be the kids yet (yes, my children often have to knock at our front door, so immersed in writing do I become). Couldn’t be the postie, he’d been and gone. Jehovah’s Witness maybe? I steeled myself with an “I’m busy” excuse and peeled open the door.
It was my neighbour and mum of my son’s school friend. “Did you happen to pick up Riley today?” she asked.
“No.” I replied, puzzled, with a little taste of uneasiness that began to curl my toes.
My neighbour then explained she had picked up her son from school and had noticed my son Riley wandering up the street, away from the school bus. Thinking I was picking him up, she thought nothing more of it, but when she drove off, she noticed Riley wandering through the local shops like a granny seeking granola.
My heart flew up and bumped me in the chin. “Did he miss the bus?” I asked, beginning to wring my hands. “Was Ella with him? Was there anyone with him? Did he tell your son where he was going?” By now, I was beginning to hop from foot to foot. The tiles beneath my feet were getting hotter and hotter.
Many a time, Riley (who is a very young six year old, with a typical young-boy self-confidence and bravery that totally belies his physical capability) has mentioned that he’s big enough to walk to and from school.
“No, darling,” I’ve replied on more than one occasion, “It’s too far. There’s too many big hills. Mummy power walked it once and it took me 25 minutes, a sore big toe, a hairy-major-roundabout crossing and lots of rocks in my shoes. You’re only six and it’s too far.”
Not according to Riley.
Before flinging myself in the car like a shopaholic late for the Boxing Day sales, it transpired that Riley had told his friend he would walk home today. So he simply skipped the bus line and started walking home. Unbenownst to me. Unbenownst to anyone. Except himself.
In the terrifying minutes before locating Riley, images of him crossing a harrowing, high-speed roundabout on a major road and being squashed like a fly against someone’s windscreen had me frenzied. And after a spate of near-abductions of elementary school children in our city, I was pretty much hysterical by the time I spotted him, climbing wearily up the hill, alone, fifteen minutes from our house.
He looked so tiny. He looked like my baby. I parked the car carefully beside him and I got out of the car. Then I fell to my knees in front of him.
And I cried.
Oh, it was pathetic. He was confused, a little stunned, concerned, wary he was in big big trouble (he was). All that. And I knelt there on the footpath and I cried and I asked him why. Why he terrified his mum like this. He said he didn’t know why. He just wanted to walk home.
In the car on the way home, of course, I ranted and I raved. I asked him how he crossed the roundabout and he told me it was easy. I was horrified all over again.
I don’t know if my reaction was the ‘right’ one, but it really was beyond my control. It certainly couldn’t have been more impactful. It was yet another moment in my parenting life where I wasn’t sure what to do… those moments when you feel like you’re six years old yourself, and can’t possibly know the best advice, the ideal course of action, the perfect response. Just because we’re parents doesn’t mean we parent perfectly or have all the answers.
Later that night, I talked with Riley intently about what happened and he seemed to come to some quasi-understanding of the fear he put me through. Interesting, though, that his main focus seemed to be on what age he would be allowed to walk home by himself. “Can I do it when I’m ten, mum?”
“Four score and ten,” I replied with a smile.
All in all, the most important thing is that Riley is safe, and that this incident serves as a timely reminder that it only takes the smallest idea in the head of a child to compromise their safety.
Not to mention their mother’s sanity.
Tania McCartney is the author of Beijing Tai Tai and the children’s book, Riley and the Sleeping Dragon. Tania is a an editor, bloggist and a regular columnist for Australian Women Online. For more information visit her website www.taniamccartney.com