(Photo credit: chinogypsie's photostream via Flickr.com)

Isn’t it a great time of year?  The days grow longer and warmer, local ice-cream shacks open for business and kids can play outside without dressing in so much fleece that their bodily features disappear.  It’s time to resume outdoor activities, breathe fresh air and have fun as a family.

After the long northern New England winter, we’re all saying, “Thank goodness!”  (If it seems to you like I’m writing these words rather late in the year: I am.  In fact, as I write this, we’re experiencing our first warm, sunny day in, um, I can’t even remember.)  Here and everywhere, it’s tempting to release the hounds–uh, kids–into the spring air for some much-needed outdoor playtime.  But as I was reminded yesterday, a brief reminder of family outdoor play rules might be in order first.

Now, as I’ve blogged before, I pretty much live in Norman Rockwell-land.  By way of example, my family’s favorite spot for ice cream is a barn located on a rural farm complete with animals, a proprietor we know by name, a sand pile, corn mazes in fall and more.  My kids know this place as well as our own property.  Since each child turned five years of age, I’ve generally given him or her free reign when we go.  Both kids know my rules as well as the farm’s, and they respect them.  Usually.

But over the winter, it seems nine-year-old “Jack” forgot a safety rule: Never play hide-and-seek with Mommy or Daddy without telling us first–especially in public.

Jack has a longstanding weakness for hide-and-seek.  He’s like a gambling addict at a craps table; if he spots a hospitable environment, he just can’t resist.  This predilection has gotten him into trouble before.  On one heart-stopping occasion nearly four years ago, his game ended in a stern lecture from two uniformed police officers.

After that episode, we reinforced the police officers’ explanation about why it’s never appropriate to hide from Mommy or Daddy without letting us know: “Because there are bad people in the world–bad people who might hurt you.  If we can’t find you, we will be afraid a bad person took you.  That’s not fun, it’s scary.  In fact, for a Mommy or Daddy, it’s just about the scariest thing there is.”

Jack saw how terrified I was the night I called the police.  He saw my shortened breaths, my shaking body, heard me run through the house and listened to my panicked voice over the phone.  (The rascal.)  That experience stayed with him for a long time.

But yesterday, at the farm, Jack disappeared on me.  It was time to leave, and six-year-old “Emmie” and I couldn’t find him.

The farm is a pretty safe place.  I took account of everyone in attendance at the time: two moms with young kids; two families, also with young kids; a youth group; and a bus load of seniors citizens.  All probably innocuous.  Besides, knowing Jack as I do, I had a pretty good idea that he’d simply succumbed to his weakness.  Even so, as the minutes wore on, that spot in my maternal brain reserved for thinking the worst began to flash blinking red.

Then I spotted him, sneaking behind outbuildings in the hope that Emmie and I wouldn’t see him.  I squeezed Emmie’s hand tightly.  “Emmie, let’s go to the car.”

“We’re not going to leave Jack here?”  She’d seen Jack, too, and was horrified that I could be that mad at him.

“No,” I admitted.  “But right now I’d like to.”

When Jack saw us standing beside the minivan, he was only disappointed that we’d spotted him.  Apparently, he’d forgotten all about the hide-and-seek rule and his lesson from four years earlier.

Naturally, the car didn’t move until I treated both children to a lecture.  Actually, it was more of a Socratic lesson, with both kids filling in the answers once they saw how serious I was.

I know, to some of you I may seem like something of a hard*ss.  Look, I’ve got nothing against a good game of hide-and-seek.  But the game has got to be announced in advance.  Kids, you do not pretend to be missing.  Ever.  You have to tell your parents what’s going on.  And parents, now’s the time for a reminder.

Remind everybody of the rules, then get out there and have fun!


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