Every Parent’s Nightmare

Every Parent’s Nightmare

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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