Today, I took my daughters to a park near our house. It was crowded with other families. While we were playing, I noticed a grandmother holding an irritated Chihuahua and yelling at a boy who looked to be about six years old. “It’s time to go,” she called. The boy ran away from her and kept playing.

“You’re dad’s going to be home, soon! We need to go right now!”
The boy climbed to the top of the play structure, completely ignoring her. The dog yapped.
“Alright,” she said, “I’m leaving now!”
The woman gave an unconvincing performance of walking away a few steps. The boy didn’t seem to notice or care. He kept running around the playground.  The woman turned around angrily, and continued yelling threats and pleas towards the boy.

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. I thought, this woman has no behavioral control at all. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to handle this child! How long is this going to go on?

In fact, it went on for about twenty minutes. Other families in the park began to notice. A few other mothers stood up and tried to talk to the boy. “You heard your grandmother! It’s time for you to go home, now!”

The boy spooked and ran away from every attempt to interact with him. As I watched, I realized that something wasn’t right. The boy had not said a single word, even to the other children around him. He maintained a rigid distance between himself and every adult. While most parents would have grabbed the child’s hand and started walking, this woman had not even attempted to make physical contact with her grandson. This was not just a grandparent who didn’t know how to manage her grandchild. Something was wrong.

Suddenly, when the grandmother got too close and too loud, the boy ran off towards a van parked on the street. The grandmother didn’t follow him, but watched, hesitantly. Maybe the boy is getting into the car, now, I thought. Instead, he lifted a bicycle from the vehicle, and began to ride quickly around the park. Now, he could easily outrun his grandmother. I watched this realization—defeat and fear—wash over the woman’s face. She slumped down on a park bench, her face in her hands.

Finally, I asked a nearby parent to watch my girls, and I approached the grandmother.

“Do you want help?” I asked.
She said, “I don’t know what to do. I just got guardianship of him a few weeks ago. His parents are on drugs. He always does this. He runs away. And he won’t come back. He’ll just keep running. They said not to take him to the park, but I thought it would be good for him to get out of the house. I could grab him and make him get into the car, but he’ll just hit and kick and bite me. He just started taking medicine for ADHD. I don’t know. He just started doing this thing where he stops talking. Does ADHD medication make kids stop talking like this?”

“No,” I said, as I watched the boy speed from one end of the park to the street on the opposite side. “Trauma makes kids stop talking.”

The grandmother and I crossed the park as slowly as we dared, since the boy was getting close to the street, but we didn’t want to scare him into biking any faster. As he got close to the sidewalk, he hesitated, then started to ride into the street. A car was coming. He froze. I grabbed the bike and pulled it back to the curb. The boy jumped off the bike and ran back into the park.

At first, we thought we lost him. Then we spotted him crouching behind a tree and some bushes. I walked the bike close and sat next to the bushes, praying that I could find something that the boy cared about enough to get into the van.

“I’ve got your bike,” I started, “do you want it back?”
He ignored me. He seemed intent on digging in the dirt.
“What’s your favorite movie? Do you want to watch a movie on my phone?”
He didn’t look up. He moved to the opposite side of the tree and pushed away some leaves on the ground.

I watched him, wondering how this would end. Would we have to wait him out for hours? Would we have to call the police? What if he ran into the street, again?

As I watched, I noticed that the boy was not randomly digging in the dirt. He was looking for something. Under the tree, there were large seed pods. I don’t know what kind of tree or what kind of seeds they were. They looked like giant almonds with a hard shell. Some of them were covered by a brown husk. The boy was sifting through the dirt and fallen leaves, searching for them. I picked up two of them.

“Here! I found two more!”
He took them out of my hand.
“And look!” I said, “There are two more over there!”
He dashed to the spot where I was pointing. I saw a flicker of an interested smile.
“I wonder if we can find twenty! Let’s find twenty together,” I said. “Can you count to twenty?”
He shook his head.
“Well, let’s find as many as we can, and I’ll count them for you!”
We both picked up as many seeds as we could carry.
“I see your hands are full. Look,” I said, “my t-shirt is really loose. I can make a pouch and put the seeds in my t-shirt, like this, and we can carry more! Do you want to put all of those seeds in my shirt, so I can carry them for you?”
He dropped the seeds into my shirt.
“Okay. Do you want to get rid of these seeds or keep them?”
“Keep them,” he said.
“Okay. When you get home, are you going to put them outside, or keep them in your room?”
“I’m going to keep them in my room.”
“Okay! Well, we should count them to see if we really found twenty. I have a good idea! Let’s take them to your car and count them. They’ll be safe in there. Do you want to count them on the floor of the car, or on the seat?”
“On the floor.”
“Sounds good! Hey, I’m holding all these seeds with one hand, and it’s kind of hard to hold the bicycle. Can you hold the other handlebar for me? Where is your car?”

We walked, each holding one handlebar of his bicycle, all the way to his car. When we go there, I said, “Okay, you get into your carseat, and I’ll sit next to you, so we can count the seeds. I’m going to put on my seatbelt, because that’s the safe thing to do in the car. Can you put on your seatbelt like me?”
He put on his seatbelt.

We counted 24 seeds. Then, we talked about how he wanted to keep the seeds in a box, but the only box he had belonged to his cat, Trouble, and Trouble was called Trouble because she scratched the curtains. We talked about the seeds. We pulled off the brown husks. He wanted to crack them open. Meanwhile, the boy’s grandmother had quietly joined us in the car, and turned on the engine.

“I can’t crack them,” I said. “Do you have a hammer, or someone really strong living at your house?”
“My uncle is really strong, and he has a hammer,” the boy said.
“When you get home, I bet you could ask your uncle to help you open the seeds,” I said, “but I need to go, now, because my daughters need me.”
“Goodbye,” he said, brightly, “would you please close the door on your way out? You push that button.”

I gave him a high five. I pushed the button on the door.

His grandmother looked at me. She said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

I wanted to say so many things to her. But I was afraid of losing behavioral momentum. And the door was closing.

I said, “I’m praying for you.” And they were gone.

Back at the park, I found my two girls playing happily in a pile of leaves. I thanked the mother who had watched them for me, and began kicking leaves around with them.

That boy reminded me so strongly of other children I had known—the girl who ran away, the boy who stopped talking when he was afraid, the girl who loved playing at the park but didn’t know how to make friends. All my children. My daughters threw leaves into the air, and tears blurred the color and flutter of them as they fell.

Another woman approached me. She said, “You know, we were judging that woman, before you came. She was so rude to us, when we first got here. And we didn’t like how she was talking to the boy. The other moms and I were talking about calling CPS.”

Trauma is an invisible, insidious beast. I thought about the many times I had taken foster children to the park and held my breath, hoping they would play well, watching other lucky children forming and breaking little alliances with one another as they played—performing little miracles of attachment, unaware of what a privilege it is to feel secure. I watched little children who played like kings and queens of imaginary realms–and ached for the children who played like outcasts and thieves. I watched perfectly typical little meltdowns with envy, fearing a scene in the event that my child was triggered.

There were days I thought, I don’t know if I can do this. There were days I couldn’t. You can’t save everyone. But you can be kind to everyone. You can be slow to judge. And you can be kind.

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