Every Parent’s Nightmare
07/13/2011 - 10:54

It’s hard enough to summon the proper wisdom to decide how much independence to give children without having to grapple with the aching worry that you’ll regret a decision for the rest of your life. But that is every parent’s burden.

Until this week, many of us who make this decision have been haunted by the worst-case-scenario of Etan Patz, the boy who disappered in 1979 on his first day walking to to the school bus stop and met with some horror that will never be fully known. Now, the Leibby Kletzky example; frighteningly similar, except that in his case we know the gruesome outcome. Reports say this, too was the first time Leibby was allowed to walk alone, compounding the endless hurt for his parents.

We can tell our kids to be wary of strangers until we are blue in the face, but the awful reality is that the advice is generally useless. In many sex abuse cases the harm comes from a familiar face, a family member, neighbor, school faculty or even a clergy member. According to an account by the police commissioner today, Leibby likely made a wrong turn in his arranged rendezvous with his mother and stopped a man on the street to ask directions. The suspect appears to be an identifiably Orthodox Jew.

Forever described as a close-knit, insular community, Borough Park’s parents generally have no cause to warn their children to be wary of their own kind, despite a few isolated cases of sex abuse involving community members. No doubt, this is a teachable moment that changes everything.

Blogger Lenore Skenazy, an advocate of independence for kids, grapples with this issue today, as she has before following horror stories, and sticks to her advice that keeping kids under a perennial watchful eye is worse than taking occasional risks that they will run into the rare-as-lightning predator. I suspect that more people will disagree today than would have on Sunday.

The story weighs heavily on me as my wife and I contemplate our own young son’s travel home from middle school next year, with bus service unavailable. Like many kids his age, he’s up for the independence, and as in the case of the older siblings, I’ve made clear that it’s not his good judgement that's at issue, but the uncontrollable factors. I’ve already accumulated mailings from the local school board in compliance with Megan’s Law, warning of sex offenders in the neighborhood and their level of potential recidivism. Whatever other options we find, the walk home alone won’t be an option.

The story weighs heavily on my mind after talking with my teenage daughter about what she considered an innocent conversation with a supermarket employee who asked her age, tempting me to have a conversation of my own with the manager.

The story weighs heavily on every parent as we grapple for solutions to guarantee our kids’ safety while at the same time nurturing their natural zeal for increasing tiers of independence. And as we realize there are none.


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I agree with Victoria AND Queen of the Click... but I also disagree on some points.

It's sad that this child may have assumed that an Orthodox-looking man could automatically be trusted when there were likely many adults, both men and women, of all backgrounds in that area with children in tow that he might have approached for help. Maybe he felt that he could not approach any stranger, so he waited around until this creep came up to him? Women are not necessarily safer, as Victoria notes, but...

I encourage my child to engage with strangers... and to learn to size people up quickly, as all city kids must... and to give a wide berth to anyone who seems even a little off.

I've told him that if he ever feels lost or unsafe, he should seek out any adult with a stroller or young kids, man or woman, and stick close to them, or duck into the the nearest storefront business. I also told him he could seek out someone in uniform, but they're hardly ever around, and he probably would be too embarrassed to do that, thinking it would get him in trouble. "Don't talk to strangers" is empty, useless advice.

I also advise him to look the drivers of cars in the eye before crossing the street, regardless of what the crosswalk signal says or whether other people are crossing, because you never know what a crazy person might do, and to always watch out for crazy cyclists!

That training begins early, and is gradual. There are never any guarantees, and the age at which each child is ready to be out there alone varies based on a child's level of maturity and the parent's level of tolerance for "risk," regardless of the statistical likelihood of this sort of thing happening to your child, which is, as Lenore Skenazy relentlessly, correctly and bravely continues to remind us, is unbelievably remote.

I will talk with my son about this, since I'm sure he will hear about it. It's a sad teaching moment, but the point is this is an extremely rare event. That doesn't lessen the tragedy for this boy or his family, but overprotecting our kids in the wake of this freak event makes them LESS safe.

This is heartbreaking on many levels, but the fact is women are not necessarily safer; i.e. Jaycee Dugard was held captive by a woman as well. Newsmagazine TV shows (like 20/20 or something) run hidden camera experiments that show parents, who talk with their kids over and over--that their kids STILL talk to strangers. It's hard NOT to give mixed messages: Don't talk to strangers, yet when someone speaks we urge them to be polite; when strangers approach us for money--we talk to them and give them money; WE talk to strangers when our kids or with us, and if they WATCH what we do instead of listening...

I was devastated by what happened. I searched for him last night from 11:00 pm to 2:30 am.

But maybe we have something to learn from Leibby's death.

You said, "Borough Park’s parents generally have no cause to warn their children to be wary of their own kind."

The fact is that there has been trouble and this little boy thought he could trust someone who was like him. Any woman would have helped this little eight year old. We don't have to be "a certaiin kind."

I lived in Borough Park so I've seen some terrible things happen from men in the area.

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