My chosen topic for tonight’s blog was derailed by news of the abduction and subsequent murder of Leiby Kletzky. Leiby, as I’m sure you all know by now, was 8 years old and walking home from his day camp alone. He’d practiced the route with his parents, but nonetheless got lost and asked a stranger for help.
When I first heard the news, I knew nothing other than an 8 year old boy had been abducted while walking home alone, and was murdered. It is the type of news that makes every parent’s heart clench in agony and fear – agony for the murdered child’s parents, and fear that such things happen at all and what if they happen to my child? Today after reading the whole story of what happened I still feel the parents’ agony, but, and I hope this doesn’t sound too crass and unfeeling, I am also relieved.
The relief came from the knowledge that this was not a child who had been grabbed off the street by a stranger and murdered. Upon realizing he had lost his way, Leiby approached a Jewish man, Levi Aron, to ask for help. The Kletzky’s are Hasidic Jews, and therefore in Lieby’s world, a Jewish man is who you seek out for help. Aron offered to drive the boy to his destination, and the boy agreed, willingly getting into this man’s car and somehow winding up sleeping the night at Aron’s apartment, fed and unharmed. It was only the next day, when Mr. Aron saw fliers on the street reporting the boy as missing that he, by his own account, panicked and killed the boy.
When it comes to self-preservation, there are many things wrong with this picture. Even so, 99% of the time (more, actually), things turn out fine, because most people are good and would wind up returning the child to his home. Gavin De Becker, author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift, writes about what to teach your child in the event they ever get lost. Rule Number One? Approach a woman for help. Any woman. Always. Even though most men in the world would not harm a child, statistically speaking, women are the safer bet. Call it natural instinct, but whatever it is, women are less likely to do harm to a child asking for help. Rule Number Two? Never get into a car or other vehicle. Not even if the person says he knows your family, not even if you know the person (sometimes especially if you know them). In this case, if Leiby had approached a woman or refused the offer to be driven home, he most likely would still be alive.
After that the facts as presented in this case sound a little strange. What boy would agree to accompany a stranger, who supposedly was driving him home, to a wedding in Monsey, NY? (Monsey is a largely Hasidic community, but still.) What child would not mention that his parents might be wondering where he is, and that he should contact them? Maybe he did. Maybe he was afraid by that point and thought if he said something, Mr. Aron would hurt him. It’s impossible to know for sure.
What is possible to know is that this event, horribly tragic though it is, is so uncommon that statistically it almost doesn’t exist. Raymond Kelly, NYC Police Commissioner, pointed that out today, reminding us that the last time anything like this happened in NYC was 32 years ago when 6 year old Etan Patz disappeared in Soho and was never found. 32 years. Millions of kids have grown up here, walking to and from parks, playgrounds, camps – even riding the subways on their own without a hint of danger. Kids who were infants 32 years ago are now parents themselves. 1 out of untold millions of kids over 32 years? I can’t even begin to calculate those odds they are so miniscule.
Despite that, the death of Leiby Kletzky is fear-inducing (helped generously along by the media, for whom this is a ratings bonanza). None of us want to think that the unthinkable might happen, no matter how rare. We don’t want our kid to be the one out of millions. So what to do?
On message boards and blogs today, I’ve seen people calling for laws restricting the age at which a child is allowed to walk alone. I’ve also seen people stating that this event is precisely the reason they will never allow their children to walk or go anywhere alone (and some of these people’s children are in their mid-teens). To the first I say that legislation of this sort does not make people safer. Accidents and tragedies will happen, and if anything these types of laws do nothing but impinge upon our freedom and bring us one step closer to living in a totalitarian state. To the second; A parent who decides that the answer to such a tragedy is to NEVER allow their child to go anywhere on their own is doing their child a huge disservice. How do you propose they learn to take care of themselves? Do you think it is a magical ability that kicks in upon reaching the age of 18? Or do you propose to follow them around their entire lives to protect them from the Levi Arons of the world? (Or to keep them from, say, going outside during a thunderstorm? Because the odds that they will be struck by lightning are much greater than that they will be abducted by a stranger.)
There is only one response, one solution, to such an event. Teach. To quote Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Teach your children well”. As life learners we usually take the road of learning through experience, but in this case, sadly, we need to learn from the experience of others. I need to teach my children well so that if they ever get lost, they know what to do. We went through the list today after I told them about what had happened in Brooklyn. If you need help, ask a woman. Don’t get into a vehicle. Don’t go anywhere out of public view. And don’t fear people. Most people are good, and kind. Trust your instincts.
My kids will continue to go out on their own, farther and farther as they grow and gain in confidence and ability. I cannot protect them from every danger in the world. I can teach them the basics of self-preservation, and keep them from unnecessary anxiety and worry so that their fear instinct is intact and ready to warn them should it be necessary. And I will mourn with the parents of Leiby Kletzky. May he rest in peace.
If you want more information on Gavin De Becker and his books, please go to his website at www.gavindebecker.com
Personally I think his books should be required reading.