How A Roadrunner Saved My Wife’s Sanity

A true story of parental genius

My wife Kathleen is one smart lady. I knew this from the start. When we met in college, I quickly learned that she always had a stack of library books nearby, covering a range of subjects that bewildered me. I had my interests and liked to read, sure, but her mind ranged all over the place. That’s why, for a few years, she made one heck of a reference librarian.

Whether or not such mental acumen prepares one for parenthood is unclear. I suspect it really doesn’t, but sometimes it can help. The following is a case in point.

When she was in first grade, Elizabeth, the youngest of our five children, developed a dread of bedtime. This was neither the usual refusal to go to bed nor a refusal to sleep once in bed. No, this was an actual fear, manifesting in hysterics when the lights went out.

In talking to her about it, Kathleen discovered the root of this terror: there were snakes under the bed! Well, no, actually there weren’t, but Elizabeth had become convinced they were there, just waiting to chomp her once darkness descended.

In such a situation, most parents, being logical critters, would try to convince their daughter that these fears were unfounded. There are no snakes under the bed. There are no snakes anywhere in the house, in fact. We can even get down on the floor and look under the bed and see there are no snakes anywhere under there.

But a child’s mind doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can’t see the snakes, but they are lurking somewhere in the shadows, and will pop out when conditions are right — namely, when it’s too dark to see! Snakes under the bed don’t listen to logic.

So naturally, Kathleen and I failed to convince Elizabeth she was safe. Mommy then sat with Elizabeth, holding her and rocking her to sleep, another tactic parents use. This does sometimes work. A child can eventually be lulled to sleep, and then you can settle her little body under the covers, tiptoe to the door, turn off the light, and . . .

. . . listen to her scream as all of a sudden she’s awake again!

And so back mommy goes to the bedside to try again. With enough patience and repetitions, the child may eventually wear herself out. But sometimes this takes a really long time, and it usually wears down the parent faster than the child.

Kathleen had reached that point when, holding Elizabeth at one o’clock in the morning with the little tyke still not asleep, she wearily thought to herself, “This can’t go on!”

What she needed, she realized, was not a way to convince Elizabeth that the snakes were imaginary, because a child’s mind just doesn’t work that way. No, what she really, truly needed was a way to defeat those blasted snakes once and for all! And as she thought about this, that vast store of knowledge she’d accumulated over the years provided the answer.

I was at work the next day when she called and asked a rather strange question. These were the early days of the Internet, and we didn’t have online service at home yet, but because I’m a software developer, I had it at work. So she asked me to go online, find a picture of a roadrunner, and print it out.

The roadrunner, you see, eats snakes. It was about to become Elizabeth’s protector in the darkness. I found and printed a photo of the requested bird, then we made photocopies of it. We taped them to Elizabeth’s bed: headboard, footboard, along the sides, everywhere. A veritable roadrunner army surrounded her. Kathleen then told her why they were there: if any snakes dare to come out in the dark, the birds will catch them and devour them.

It worked! Elizabeth’s fear of nocturnal snakes vanished, allowing her — and her beleaguered mother — to get a good night’s sleep from then on. Those roadrunners stayed in place, monitoring for snakes, for a year or more. When they became old and faded and fell off or were taken down, they were no longer needed. They’d done their job and went to a well-deserved rest.

Elizabeth is not quite 30 now, and sometimes we all look back on this incident and laugh. You may be laughing, too. But if you’re a harried parent, wondering how to get it through your child’s thick skull that there are no snakes (or whatever) under the bed, remember that it’s not a thick skull at all. Children simply don’t think like adults. They think like children. It’s the adult’s job to meet them on their level.

Unfortunately, sometimes the necessary inspiration only comes at one in the morning when you’re exhausted and ready to pull out your last hair. But maybe this story will spare you that experience. If it does, be sure to pass it on. We parents need all the help we can get!

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