I was baking gingerbread men. It was my three-year-old’s idea, but his 13-year-old brother thought it would be a great thing to have on his own birthday the next day. I had to go out and buy the cookie-cutters because, at the age of 40 and as the mother of five sons, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t own any. I did have some teeny ones, two tiny men and an angel, but no proper sized cookie-cutters. I made a late run to the store and hurried home, and as I rolled out the dough and cut the little guys out, I felt a root of bitterness in my heart. I took one of the tiny gingerbread man cookie-cutters and, out of the center of one of the larger cookies, cut the shape of the tinier man.

“There,” I said to my husband, showing him the cookie man sans his tiny inside self. “This is Joshua. He has lost touch with his inner child.”

Last year our 16-year-old son, Joshua, left home—for good, my husband thinks. Unlike the gingerbread man, he isn’t a runaway; he is a walkaway. He calmly told me he was leaving, kissed me and his little brothers goodbye, and walked out. We found out he was smoking dope and confronted him, grounding him until further notice. He had made big plans for homecoming that weekend and decided that he would rather walk out than submit. He would rather smoke dope than obey; he would rather lie than tell us, or himself, the truth; he would rather be selfish than face duty and responsibility.

During a long confrontation with his Dad, he had once had the gall to say, “You’ve lost touch with your inner child!” “I hope you laughed in his face,” I told my husband. Joshua’s inner child is a spoiled brat, and I suppose a lot of that is our fault. We’d sure like to get in touch with it now and give it a good switching, but it’s too late. Our gingerbread boy is gone, and I don’t think we can catch him.

He had the decency to come home for his brother’s birthday, but other than that he has only called twice. For the first couple of weeks, we didn’t know where he was staying from one day to the next. Our caller I.D. showed the number of the fast-food restaurant where he works. One call was to try to get the money he had put away for college so that he could find an apartment, and the other was because he thought he was breaking out in hives and wanted some medicine. I should have told him to call one of the single moms who all seem so willing to put up vagrant irresponsible boys for a few days and ask her for mothering. I think he could stay in single-parent homes until doomsday. Teens today have learned one modern technique that is serving them well—networking.

One mother did take the time to call and ask what was going on with Joshua. She is the mother of the boy with whom he was smoking “herbs,” as they so casually refer to marijuana. She is a very decent woman, employed in a branch of law enforcement (I won’t mention in what capacity, but let’s just say that smoking “herbs” is like playing hearts compared to the kids she deals with). When this escapade came to light, she gave her son a drugs version of the “safe sex” philosophy. These arguments are wonderfully interchangeable: If you are going to “do it,” be sensible and responsible; don’t “do it” and drive; don’t let “it” interfere with school; don’t let “it” get you into trouble; be smart; be safe. The “it” could be anything—sex, drugs, smoking, gluttony, adultery, avarice, sodomy—you fill in the sin, ancient or modern. Maybe we need a new federal ad campaign: “Sin safe, sin smart. Responsible sinners know their limits. Remember, Hell is just a matter of perspective.”

Anyway, she was willing to take him in and wanted to let us know that, and she promised to keep in contact with us. She is the only one who called. It amazes me that an adult will take in a kid without talking to his parents. Who knows what sort of story teens tell these compassionate suckers who give them a warm bed and a decent meal. “My Dad beats me” (no, but your mother wishes he would); “My parents don’t love me” (which means that we don’t like some of the typical teen behavior); “My Mom never lets me use the phone or go out with my friends” (after nine o’clock on school days); “My parents just don’t understand” (how you can be such a selfish brat).

I didn’t have the heart to give my runaway boy the hollow cookie man when he came home for the birthday supper. He would have understood the symbolism, and it would have hurt him—and me. I couldn’t bear to give it to any of the other four boys, much less to throw it away. Symbols are imbued with meaning, and I am too superstitious. Later in the week, after much thought, I decided to play the part of the fox myself as an act of penance for making it in such a fit of spite. Thinking a little sugar would make it easier, I started to frost the empty soul, and he fell apart in my hands. He is too fragile. He cannot take the pressure.