Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Balancing Fear and Trust

Last week’s tragic news that an eight year old boy, Leiby Kletzky, was abducted and murdered in Brooklyn has many parents debating the merits of allowing children to walk unsupervised through city streets.   It was the first day the boy was allowed to walk the seven blocks home alone.  He got lost and stopped to ask a stranger for directions.  This particular stranger was one of the extremely rare dangerous ones. 

It's heartbreaking that so many have chosen to throw blame at his grieving parents.  “What were the parents thinking?” seems to be a common response. 

Well, I think I know what they were thinking.  They were thinking that a child has a better chance of being struck by lightning than of being abducted.  They wanted their child to feel independent, and get to know his neighborhood.  They knew that if he got lost, chances are that he’d ask a kind helpful person who would get him safely home.  What happened was inconceivable for them, but it will remain in the consciousness of every parent who has heard this news story. 

The incident made me remember my own terror as a child, getting separated from my mom at a county fair, and crying for what seemed like hours, but was surely less than 10 minutes, in the first aid tent, surrounded by caring strangers.  It made me remember losing my children in department stores, and enlisting the help of other women pushing strollers around who immediately understood my panic.  I remembered all the helpful people in the Sheep Meadow when I lost my kids in Central Park two summers ago.  

I still feel that fear, allowing my kids to roam unsupervised in ever-widening circles, but I’ve never believed in teaching children not to talk to strangers.  Yes, “Be on your guard.”  “Never allow someone to touch you or pick you up.”  “Never get in a car with someone you don't know.”  “If you’re lost and need help, find another mother with children.  She’ll know what to do.”   Teaching them to feel comfortable approaching strangers when in crisis will almost always help them.   It's not unlike the moment when we let go of that two wheeler, and allow them to pedal on their own for the first time -- the trick is teaching them to balance fear and trust.

I hope that parents, especially the ones in Borough Park, will read Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids blog, and learn about the real risks of letting their children roam.   Now, more than ever, kids need to connect, in real time, with their natural surroundings.  They need to feel the thrill and pride of doing something on their own.  They need to know that evil exists, but still believe in the kindness of strangers. 


tut-tut said...

right on, JGH.

Malay-Kadazan girl said...

My eyes well up with tears reading this post. I know it is scary to let children to be more independent but we know they have to spread their wings too and teach them there are evil and good things in the environment. My eldest have language disorder, we lost him for a few minutes in a cultural festival. I was so panic knowing he can't even communicate to people to ask for help.

k said...

My daughter wandered off from me at the farm a couple times, once right at dusk. I was just crazy. I didn't dare read about that boy. My daughter is 22 and I still worry. I can't imagine their pain.
Still, we have to let go.

tina said...

I heard about the terrible terrible thing that happened to this boy. I think and am grateful that this does not happen often. I don't blame the parents and had not heard of them being blamed but truthfully all parents at one time or another have allowed younger children to either walk to the bus stop, use the restroom or whatever at one time or another. Really no one is safe from a monster like the man who committed this crime and only sympathy should be felt for the loss to our society and the terrible loss these parents and the community has endured.

jocelyn said...

Excellent post: that is a difficult balance.

JGH said...

Thanks, tut - you must have gone thru some of this when L went to college. That'll be a tough one.

Malay-Kadazan, that must have been so scary!

LazyMom said...

It is so tricky letting go and holding your breath hoping they have enough common sense if something goes amiss. That is way I get so annoyed at schools and local governments who think they are protecting kids by not allowing them to grow-up and have experiences they need to survive in the real world.

TALON said...

So very true. The fear you have for your children never leaves - not even when they are grown up and on their own. I'd rather have a child really live life (with all the risks that entails) than have them confined inside a bubble-life. Sooner or later, they have to go out into the world on their own...all we can do is prepare them to the best of our abilities.

My heart aches for that family, but I could never blame them for their choice.

JGH said...

K, I remember when I told my boss I was pregnant for the first time,obsessing over something and she said "now you'll worry for the rest of your life" LOL

You're right Tina. It's so sad that this happened the first time they allowed him this new freedom! I find that more and more often now I'm allowing them to do something or go somewhere that I wasn't allowing yesterday.

Thanks, Jocelyn. One day at a time :)

LazyMom, You mean like preventing kids from running on the playground? Our school actually forbid this.

Talon, very well said. As hard as it is sometimes, we have to give them the risky experiences.