How To Accidentally Train Your Kid To Survive

The best part about being a kid growing up in a house like I did.

Childhood photo of author Kriste Sorokaite, Sisoje | Canva, Courtesy of Author 

My alarm clock was pink. It came from Sears with the pack of undershirts I got for Christmas in the third grade. I don’t know what happened to that alarm clock, but I can tell you that I held onto, and continued to stitch up the holes in those undershirts until I was 38 years old.

I’ve always been sentimental with things.

In the 90s there was no option for a gentle warm light wakeup call or a soft little birdie ditty. You had two options: raging, menacing beep, or the radio. And since I wasn’t allowed to wake anyone else up when I was getting ready for school, I chose the safest route.


Bob and Sheri on 107.9 FM were my school morning parents. When it was dark and otherwise quiet in my home, they were the voices who ushered me into every school day. They told me the weather so I knew what to wear, some talking points for the commute, and an earworm or two to keep me company while I got ready for the day.

When that alarm went off, I had very specific tasks I needed to complete before I could do anything for myself. My mission, which I had no choice in accepting, was to get ready for school without waking up the adult sleepers downstairs.

The tasks:

  1. Quietly open my bedroom door and sneak down the staircase that always had something to say
  2. Find the right boards on the floor that would cushion my bare feet instead of announcing their presence
  3. Walk like a cartoon bank robber to their bedroom and figure out how to close the oldest door in the world using the loudest knob on the planet

(As I’m typing this, I’m wondering why their door wasn’t already closed by them the night before, instead of putting me through this obstacle course every Monday through Friday. I never asked.)


How to Accidentally Train Your Kid to Survive

Photo: Ekaterina Chernomortseva/Pexels

RELATED: I Honestly Don’t Know How I Survived My Childhood

The house I grew up in was built in the 1930s, so closing any door quietly was an impossible mission — about as impossible as quietly walking across that floor.

The doorknobs were glass and they screamed at you every time you touched one, the door hinges screeched, the latch was disobedient, and the sleeping lady on the nearest side of the bed could hear someone breathe across town even with the pillow over her head.


You know that scene in Return to Oz when Dorothy has to sneak into Princess Mombi’s bedroom to steal the powder of life without waking up any of the heads on display? It was like that — every morning.

The generation before me had No Wire Hangers!!! I had a headless lady chasing a little girl down a hallway of her screaming heads.

This whole process took about 10 minutes. And once I secured the area, I had to carefully avoid all the landmines on the way back upstairs to get myself ready. My bathroom floor sat directly over their bed, so I knew to not flush the toilet or run the shower.

My bathroom used to share the wall behind their bed before the renovation. I was not set up for bathroom success in that house.


Once all of my getting ready was done, I was to feather-walk again back down the stairs and into the kitchen to make my breakfast and lunch in the dark. The kitchen was directly across the hall from their bedroom, and there was about three inches of air between the bottom of their bedroom door and the floor so any amount of light in the general vicinity was a big No.

My breakfast was usually a vanilla Carnation Instant Breakfast packet mixed with orange juice. She said it tasted like an Orange Julius and would keep my weight down. I mixed it with a fork inside one of the many free plastic sports cups that littered our cabinet. Lunch was usually a bagel sandwich with deli turkey and honey mustard, Gardettos, and an apple. But if I was running late, or just felt like remembering I was a teenager for a second, I would put on my brave girl panties and sneak into their room to steal some money from his dresser.

He kept a large jar of quarters up there with some dusty photos and stacks of envelopes. He saved them to roll on Friday nights for savings bonds. So many quarters, a vat full of free money up there for the taking. One was all I needed to buy a giant yeast roll from the cafeteria, but I generally took a big handful just because I could and it felt good.

I considered it my fee.


With a dozen quarters shoved into my Merona jeans pockets, I would sneak back around their bed in the dark, and through the door that I carefully closed again behind me. I would then go back into the dark kitchen to stare outside the tiny window into the doctor’s office parking lot to wait for the headlights of Kerrin’s car.

Kerrin was my ride, and I often wondered what she thought about this whole process. Did her mother make her breakfast and kiss her goodbye before she left? Did her father stand at the door and wave as she drove away with a cup of coffee in one hand and the paper rolled up in the other? I never asked.

I couldn’t go out the back door — the main access — because their bedroom was saddled up right next to the driveway. Any headlights coming in or out would wake them up. And a car door opening or closing would for sure wake them up. Then there were the dogs that I needed to keep asleep back there — because a barking dog would wake them up.

No one was allowed to come up the driveway during their sleeping hours.


Once I saw the headlights of Kerrin’s white sedan in an otherwise opaque morning, I turned my feet into pillows again to make it to the front door and lock it behind me with the key in the quarters pocket. And I navigated my way in the muddy dark, through the overgrown and neglected knockout rose bush jungle that thorned me so many times it became a metaphor.

Kerrin’s car was always so warm and comforting. Maybe it was because she was the first real person to show up for me. Maybe it was because by the time she got there at 6:30 am, I had already lived a day of impossible missions, and all I had to do was sit and let her take the wheel.

I was thankful to be out of the jungle.

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I learned how to steal in so many different ways growing up that I still regularly think like a criminal. That’s why I would make an excellent private investigator, the kind that old white men write about where the old white man knows how to catch the bad guy only because he used to be one, and somehow other old white men find that endearing.

Going to the movies with the family was one of my main lessons in stealing. Every weekend was spent at the movie theatre. And sometimes we would pay for just one movie, and stay for a second. ‘A double feature!’, we called it to help everyone forget it was stealing. There was a whole process of picking the right movies based solely on their showtimes to make our scam work.

It never even mattered if we wanted to see the movies we chose. We did it because we could.

Then there was the training to get the fake free popcorn refills. She would keep used plastic grocery bags in her purse and once we sat down, she’d dump everyone’s popcorn into them and tell me to go find a line with an employee who wouldn’t recognize me. Sometimes I’d miss the beginning of the movie trying to find the right employee to scam while also trying to not get in trouble with either that employee or the popcorn machine back in her seat waiting for the refill.


Every weekend we went through five gallons of popcorn in one sitting before dinner. We were not allowed candy at the movie theatre because sugar is bad for you. I hate the movie theatre now.

By the time I was in middle school, I was deep into some light shoplifting.

I was so used to sneaking around at home by that point, that it all just came naturally to me. My training for that — and what my high school mornings would become —started when I was 5. My weekend mornings were for them to sleep off their big nights. I sometimes had 6 to 7 hours to figure out how to keep myself safe and occupied before they woke up.

My parents were Muppet BabiesGummi Bears and DuckTales. My breakfast was a giant bowl of popcorn left out for me the night before. Sometimes I would find things around the house to wrap up and give them when they woke up. A deck of cards from the hanging wicker basket by the den door, the remote, a carrot. I needed something to do and would be so excited to finally have someone to talk to that my little self turned their waking up into a big event that required celebration and presents. I was later scolded for wasting paper.


Soon all of that training morphed into finding little things at the drugstore to sneak and steal. Little trinkets for them, my friends, me. I started to be a big collector of things from a very early age. Children of trauma tend to hoard and collect because it brings them the comfort they aren’t able to otherwise find in their lives. It's about finding ‘stuff’ to fill the hole left by emotional abandonment.

If you don’t show a child what love is by merely being there when she needs you, she will find a way to create it. By any means necessary, that child will find her version of love.

So I continued to figure out what my version of love was by collecting things to fill that hole. Sunglasses and keychains were my big ones. I had a table of sunglasses on display in my bedroom as if I was running a kiosk. And I had the largest, heaviest keychain by the time I got to high school. It was about the size of my head, and it made me so happy. Mini-manicure kit, baby flashlight, lip gloss, a tiny deck of cards in a tiny case, erasers, micro-notebook with a detachable micro-pen, and a Troll doll — all bunched together with my home and car key.

Not all of the things I collected were stolen, but I was obsessed with tangible expressions of love and surprise. And sneaking around to get them was not only easy at that point, it seemed like the right thing to do.


I found out that my version of love was attention, and it was cultivated in all of the many hours I spent alone sneaking around to protect the people around me. Sometimes I’d hand out some of my pocket quarters to the other kids at school so they could buy their giant yeast roll. It made me feel cool and liked. Swiping a tube of lipstick from Revco made me feel powerful and in charge. Sneaking out at night the very same way I was taught to sneak out on a school morning was how I proved that I was as responsible and mature as I was trained to be from the age of five.

I went to countless parties all over town and outside of it. Drank my share of tepid screwdrivers and skunky Budweisers, flirted with everyone’s share of older boys, and got myself into several really stupid and scary situations involving getting into dark corners with strangers and a lot of drunk cars. Just as I learned to steal from going to the movies, I learned to drink and drive by watching him and his lap Bud.

How to Accidentally Train Your Kid to Survive

Photo: Personal Archives 1996/Abbey Wade


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The best part about being a kid growing up in a house like I did is the next morning you get the ride-along to McDonalds for ‘the morning after’ meal. I rarely had this kind of food unless they were hungover and needed it. She stayed home in bed and he drove. 

When I was really little, we’d get to take the CJ-7. This vehicle had no doors, no seatbelts, and only got FM radio if the temperature went above 97 degrees. It lived in the garage that wasn’t a garage but more of a home for several mice and our drooling, feral bobcat that someone named Mingles. Riding in this Jeep was about as safe as all the times he and lap Bud put me on the bow of the Donzi and raced over the ocean waves so fast that my 10-year-old butt would be airborne more than touching the boat itself.

That’s the thing about being a kid raised in this sort of environment — a lot of times, it is so much fun. A child will train themselves to focus on and remember, the highs instead of dwelling on the lows because they instinctively know they have to rely on these people to walk them through life a little bit longer. It’s self-preservation. It’s survival.


But the shift happens when the child gets older, and the behavior around them does not change. They start to remember the fear a little bit more because they know a little bit more, and things just aren’t quite as fun in their head as they used to be. And once the child outgrows the adult, that emotional imbalance and the keen awareness of the unsafety that has existed for so long becomes difficult to ignore.

When I was a senior in high school, I was still performing my impossible mission every morning before school, except now I was the driver. I would delicately leave my house every morning, cross my fingers when I started my car, and with headlights off, slowly and carefully pull out of the driveway and onto the road in the dark. Sometimes if their night was particularly in need of sleeping off, I would have to drive my car to the doctor’s office parking lot the night before to make it easier on them the next morning.

I had a passenger in the front next to me, and one in the back. And one morning, someone didn’t stop at the red light at the Quik Stop and crashed, head first, into my car. I woke up hearing moans from both the back and the front and feeling a massive pain in my forehead. My head had smashed into the steering wheel of the old hand-me-down Ford Aerostar with no airbags. I had a concussion and a hematoma. The sleeping adults back home got a different kind of wake-up call that morning.


The only thing that saved my life that day was my largest, heaviest beloved keychain that had, over time, loosened the steering wheel column so much that when my head hit it with such force, it moved with me just enough to keep me safe.

I may not be proud of all the things I did when I was a teenager. And I can’t explain how I survived as many near-deaths as I have. But I am so very proud of how, somehow, and by the grace of something I cannot name, I have collected enough tools on my own that have saved my life.

Some of the things that used to be what nourished you become your poison. All of the popcorn I was taught to steal, and the powdered dairy drinks I was told were food. I'm allergic to corn, and I’m lactose intolerant — and I'm perfectly okay with that.

But I do find myself loving a dark and quiet morning all to myself. It doesn’t make me think of neglect or fear. I’ve been able to surgically remove those parts of it and build something new with what was left. Now my mornings are a source of peace and gratitude.


My oldest kid is a teenager in high school now. My alarm clock plays me a soft piano song to usher me into the day before 5 am. And I have about 30 minutes of quiet, alone time in the dark before my child gets up. I am his first source of warmth and comfort. I make sure he is fed, and I hug him goodbye before his father drives him to school.

He hears and feels that we love him before any other source of information enters his brain. We sometimes have only five minutes together, but it’s enough to remind us both what our version of Love is.

I am there. Tired or not, I am there.

How to Accidentally Train Your Kid to Survive


Photo: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels

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Abbey Wade is a chef, writer, and past actor. She’s been running the website Everyday Champagne for 17 years.