The details of the murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky are heart-rending. It was an act of evil that recalls the first time in modern memory that a stranger abducted a child off the streets of New York City. That child was also a young Jewish boy, Etan Patz, who had, like Leiby, begged his parents to allow him to walk alone, in that 1979 case to the school bus stop. This week, Leiby was trying to walk home from day camp.
There has been a plethora of coverage of Leiby Kletzky’s murder, including this New York Times piece about the ultra-Orthodox community’s tendency to view Jews as “safe,” and non-Jews (or those who appear not to be Jewish) as dangerous.
As Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, told Clyde Haberman this week, “children are vulnerable.” Most children Leiby’s age, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, don’t understand the danger that strangers — even Jewish ones — can present. One of the nice things about children in Haredi communities is that, protected from television news and reality garbage (since most Haredi families do not have televisions), they have the sweetness of childhood on them for as long as possible.
There is also that “double standard” that Joseph Berger writes about in The Times.
The message that Jews are safe and morally superior to the non-Jews around them is inculcated in ultra-Orthodox communities. The need to protect the sanctity of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community by building its virtual shtetl walls ever higher is justified by the tawdriness of American culture at large, for instance, the overt sexuality in advertising and in the way that many women dress. It is evidence of how deeply embedded the suspicion of those perceived to be outsiders is that it endures even as there is growing awareness of the sexual abuse of children by trusted adults in those communities. There is little doubt that lost Leiby Kletzky turned to his murderer for help because he looked Jewish enough to make him appear trustworthy.
Some, including Forward columnist Lenore Skenazy, now worry that because of Leiby’s horrifying murder, parents will become even more over-protective.
She writes, in this blog post, that the fact that this evil act is so rare proves that we need not hesitate to send our young children out alone. She says we should “take it in stride” and allow “life to continue on as normal.” The first point she makes in her post is that Leiby’s murder should not be seen as proof that she is wrong to advocate that we give our children free range.
Lenore has built a new chapter in her career on letting her then-9-year-old son ride the subway by himself, and writing about the reaction it provoked. She went on to write a book about her “Free Range Kids” philosophy and has a reality television show in the works.
But I find Lenore’s argument simplistic. Yes, it’s important to let our children gradually explore their growing sense of independence from the time we trust that they have sufficiently mature judgment to know how to handle the unexpected. But we also have to prepare them to do just that. As in most things, good sense lies in the balance.
That balance is different one family to the next. I know someone who put her ill-equipped 6- and 8-year-old sons on a cross-country airplane trip to visit their grandparents. When their connecting flight was delayed, the children were unable to recall even their own home telephone number (this was shortly before cell phones became ubiquitous). I don’t know where their mother’s sense was when decided to let such unprepared little kids fly solo. I also know people who don’t let their children go to the neighborhood supermarket alone until they reach adolescence. That is too hover-y for me. I know people who leave their sleeping toddler alone at home. I’m more hover-y than that.
For me the balance has meant having those repeated hard conversations with my kids from the time they start badgering me to go to the neighborhood store or ice-cream shop by themselves. What should they do if someone approaches them asking for directions, or help finding a lost puppy? (Walk away). If they feel threatened in any way on the street, where should they go? (Into the closest store and up to the cashier). If they get lost, whom should they approach for help? (A woman, one with children with her, if possible). What should they do if someone touches them inappropriately at school, on the subway, at a friend’s house, wherever they may be? (Tell me or Daddy.) Have I wanted to erode my 6-, 7-, 8-year old’s sweet innocence by teaching her to be wary of people? Of course not. But it’s a sad necessity.
Preparing our children for their developing independence means also preparing ourselves. I recommend reading the book “Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane)” by Gavin de Becker.
So now I let my 10-year-old bibliophile browse the $1 rack outside the used bookstore around the corner, and let her and her 12-year-old sister go to the store or the ices shop by themselves. They’ve even started going to the playground, a block away. They both have cell phones and have to take them with when they go out. I don’t plan to pull back, even after Leiby’s murder. Because giving them gradually growing independence is an important part of their education. Of course, I will be more anxious than ever about their well-being until they’re at home.
I spoke with Rabbi Norman Patz, Etan’s uncle, who said that he talked to his brother, Etan’s father, the day after poor Leiby’s body was found. Stan Patz told him, “You want your children to be strong and independent.” But Norman Patz, who is now rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, N.J., worries about the safety of his two young granddaughters. “I know that statistics show that it’s not often that little kids are abducted, but that doesn’t make any parent less anxious,” he said. When I asked him what he thinks parents should do, he said, “The best you can.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
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