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Tanya Cotler Ph.D.
Tanya Cotler Ph.D.

If You Run Away, I'll Be Right Here

An exploration of how imperfect parenting builds trust and resilience.

“Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, "I am running away."
"If you run away," said his mother, "I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

—Margaret Wise Brown

If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance you have a copy of The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown on your bookshelf.

Kelly Sikemma/Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikemma/Unsplash

It is a classic story with an almost mystical element—with beautiful illustrations and a captivating rhythm and prose. It tells a heartwarming story of an imaginary game of chase as the little bunny boldly explores his world of fantasy and negotiates separation and connection.

Each time the bunny declares his departure—to become a fish in a trout stream, a rock on a mountain, a crocus in a hidden garden—the mother bunny asserts her unwavering commitment to follow him and change along with him.

On the surface, the beauty of The Runaway Bunny lies in how the mother calmly asserts her capacity to tolerate the bunny’s desire to separate, which paradoxically allows him to stay connected. The mother bunny does not restrain or restrict the little bunny’s imagination—and her response offers reassurance, both to her little bunny and the young reader.

With a deeper read, however, it also leaves parents and children with a challenge because of the exactness and predictability with which she inserts herself into the child bunny’s fantasy.

While there is beauty in changing along with your child and following their lead, I am concerned with the message that we cannot tolerate the inexactness, the difference, the movement, the separateness.

The book’s message reinforces the same one we see in so many other childhood tales: the notion that the parent should always be available and giving without limitation, error, or distance. Even in fantasy, mother bunny does not let her little bunny change and separate from her (“If you become a flower in a garden, I will become a gardener and find you”).

While we can appreciate this book as a classic piece of literature that may have been appropriate for the time period written, where does it leave us in the present day? In this age of dual-income and blended families, a parent would have to give up their own fantasies, desires, agency, and mind in order to maintain this kind of physical proximity to their child at all times, which simply isn’t realistic, necessary—or even a good idea.

I appreciate that the mother bunny is playing with reality (Winnicott, 1971) and, through play, communicating a containing function: I will always be there for you. But, for me, the question is: To what extent does the mother bunny need to “be (physically) right there.”

Much is written about the importance of proximity-seeking behaviors in infancy (which are innate in the child) and the sensitive responding and availability of the caregiver to ensure the building of a secure attachment (Bowlby, 1969/1982). There is, however, increasing focus on the role of the mother’s own emotion regulation as well as a plethora of research and literature highlighting the child’s active role in his or her experience of the relationship. The two players (parent and child) are involved in coordinating their responses to one another (Jaffe et al., 2001), and there is a significant role for the repair of ruptures (Schore, 1994; Woodhouse, 2019) in the development of an internal representation of trust.

The goal is that the bunny (child) comes to trust that he or she can elicit the parent’s sensitivity when it is needed (i.e., during stressful times) but also that the parent does not interrupt the exploration process. It is the idea that the parent is reliably there, as a secure base from which the child can explore. The literature demonstrates that there is a central place for misattunement (being out of tune and out of sync with a child) and that ruptures in perfection (i.e., mistakes) can actually serve the attachment relationship positively when repaired.

Playing in Reality

I invite you to run away with me into the realm of childhood play for a little bit. From infancy, children play with themes of connection and separation, beginning with peek-a-boo. After a sense of connection and trust is established through gaze, eye contact is broken momentarily. The baby’s eyes dart around, searching for the grounding and containing eyes they saw moments ago.

Caleb Woods/Unsplash
Source: Caleb Woods/Unsplash

Research demonstrates that, in this search phase, the nervous system of the infant shifts to a startled response with increased activity in the "fear center" of the brain, the amygdala (Levine, 2010). The pleasurable aspect of the game develops (around six months of age) through the rhythmic and repetitive pattern of gaze disappearing and reappearing moments later, over and over again.

Following each departure comes the reunification. With the retrieval of the parent’s gaze comes exhilarated relief and a squeal of joy. The imperfect synchronicity helps the child form the impression that “it’s OK when a good thing (person) is lost, because it comes back again, and again. I am safe, and I can separate because we come back together again.”

The thrill of loss and retrieval is central to other games of early childhood, like hide and seek, and role-playing games like "Goodbye, Mommy" (when a child takes on the role of the leaving parent and announces with glee, “I am leaving,” or “I am going to work”). In each of these games, every moment of being concealed—of departure—flows into the next moment of reunification to establish a sense of play.

In the realm of reality, we see the same repetitive negotiation of comings and goings from kindergarten or first school drop-offs to a parent’ s night out. These moments—in both fantasy and reality—are predicated on the reunion, the repair.

Imperative for the child’s development of a representation of a "present other," as well as their capacity to be alone (Winnicott, 1958/1974), explore and separate, and find their own mind, are moments of misattunement, balanced imperfectly with connection and attunement—it is a musical interchange thorough which parent and child find psychical connection. Of course, departures can activate fear, but with the repetition of repair and reunion following separation comes emotional resilience and trust.

At the heart of the leaving games and real relationships—and the parent/child bond—is the attunement between parent and child. We need to highlight that a secure bond is never without these misattunements and repair.

This is important so that we can forgive the normal mistakes and misses of parenting. It is completely normal for a mother to become emotionally triggered—due to frustration, anger, or depletion. Completely normal for a father to react out of tune with what is needed in response to a crying baby or an argumentative teen.

Our momentary separations, our falling out of sync, our separateness also create the space for our children to explore and find their true selves while trusting that we hold space for them, love them, and see them even when we aren’t exactly right there with them. Winnicott writes in his paper "The Capacity to Be Alone" (1958/1974) that what allows the child to be alone—comfortable to find themselves—is learning that you (the parent) hold them in your mind even when you are physically not there. You are still connected, even when separated. Our difference and imprecision give our children permission to move and willfully create while trusting us to be right there when we are needed.

Back to The Runaway Bunny, I wonder if we’d be better off communicating the message: “You can be a crocus in a hidden garden or a flying tight-rope walker; You can run away, and I, my little bunny, will be right here.” In other words, I support your fantasy wholeheartedly, and although I may not come along with you all the time, I’ll be right here, seeing you, recognizing you, honoring you, and always holding you in my mind.

About the Author
Tanya Cotler Ph.D.

Tanya Cotler, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Toronto, Canada, specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health and parent-child attachment.

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