Our daughter is a wanderer. Last month she managed to escape school. She found an opportunity during lunch; she slipped through the door into the gymnasium, and then out another set of doors onto the back lawn. Luckily a teacher saw her sprinting across the grass through a window—but she made it across the street and into the neighborhood before they caught her.
I wonder where she would have gone if that teacher hadn’t noticed her running across the grass.
I like to think I know my child pretty well. We sometimes practice walking without holding hands in safe areas, hoping to teach her the importance of staying with us even when we are not physically tethered. And it works for a while. But any random thing might catch her eye and she’s off—no hesitation or care in the world outside of getting to her destination.
Sometimes she just likes how a certain house looks and wants to go inside. Maybe someone has a porch swing, or she’s thirsty and sees a cup. She will drink out of any cup. ANY cup. But nothing excites her more than a body of water.
We recently visited some old friends who live on a small lake. It was a good visit for Teghan. She ate cake and played on their swing set. We knew the lake would be a temptation, but she seemed content to swing. We knew eventually she would go to the edge of the water and plunge a foot in. We aren’t new– we were prepared for that. What we were not prepared for was her unexpected sprint toward the lake, down the dock…. and that confident leap she took off the end of it.
My heart stopped. I knew it was shallow and my husband was right there, but I could not believe what I had just seen. Her head popped up above the water’s surface, then under, then up again. And then there she was: standing in the lake, shoes and clothes soaking wet, and smiling as big as I have ever seen her smile. When Dave brought her in to change her clothes she couldn’t possibly have been happier. She couldn’t wait to do it again.
She asks to go back daily. “Cake, swing, beach house?” She uses multiple descriptive words with everything lately. It’s new, and a big step forward in communication for her. The other day she even said “Go get French fry hamburger?” Which is practically a correct sentence. So a part of me wants to grant her that wish of going to the “cake, swing, beach house” and allow her to leap off that dock a million times. But in reality I hate that she was so bold about jumping in the water, and I hate it even more that it was a positive experience for her. It confirmed our worst fear in a very visual way.
Now we know for sure she would do it again if we weren’t around. She wouldn’t wonder if the water was too deep, or even hesitate to leap into a complete unknown. Not that this is surprising. After all, when the school called that day to tell us what had happened, both me and my husband immediately did the math on the distance between her school and the park lagoon. Next time I will have a clearer picture in my head of what her jumping into it looks like.
As she gets older and more resourceful in her escape plans, she also becomes more connected and trustworthy. So maybe we have a false sense of security at times and we do let our guard down. I know exactly how kids wander, because I know exactly how it would happen to us. I don’t think the answer is to simply stay on high alert without failure. Failure is, after all, inevitable. We can only hope our failures always happen at the right times. (So far, so good.)
We need to increase the safety measures in our house and have more serious discussions about safety with her school. Her teachers are also human and capable of becoming too comfortable. It’s less about what we can do to keep track of her better, and more about what our backup plan will be when we fail. That’s what we need to prepare for.
But even then, every day is a risk for all of us. And sometimes I just want to marvel at the way the same girl who requires six attempts before successfully going down a new slide could intentionally propel herself off the end of an unknown boat dock. It was an impressive jump. I’m sure she had been secretly planning it from the moment she stepped foot in that backyard, and she knew she would have only one shot. No hesitation. And she did it. The pride on her face was impossible to miss.
So yes. It scares me. But I’m more than a little proud of her, too.