I had all kinds of light material to write about this week, but somehow it felt wrong to ignore poor Leiby Kletzky. In case you've been living in some kind of weird and absolute news outage, Leiby Kletzky was an eight-year-old Brooklyn boy who asked the wrong stranger for directions while walking home from his summer camp, made the tragic decision to get in that stranger's car, and was found two days later, suffocated and dismembered. The suspect, who has confessed to kidnapping and murdering the little boy, has no prior criminal record.
It's one of those crimes that shocks the conscience, makes strangers oceans away cry, and sets off a frenzy of media attention. It's also incredibly unusual - the last time NYC saw a crime with a similar fact pattern was thirty years ago.
I shouldn't have been shocked when CNN's "crime analyst," who annoyed me so intensely that I won't give her a plug here, breathlessly barked that "No place is safe!"
But I was shocked. So much so that I almost careened right off the treadmill.
Why? Because, first of all, inciting panic is idiotic. I would love for someone - anyone - to give me just one example of a circumstance in which the absolute, best course of action is to panic.
Secondly, because hysterical squawking about this rarest of dangers in an evil world implicitly places blame with the boy's parents.
Who did nothing wrong.
Anybody else remember what it's like to be a kid?
Didn't you want to do things yourself? Didn't you roam your neighborhood on long summer days, often in the company of a gang of children, but sometimes on your own? Don't those memories still make you smile? I know that I wasn't monitored 24/7 at Leiby's age. And neither were any of the kids I knew. We were sent outdoors to play and no, we didn't stay in view of the kitchen window. By the time I was ten, I biked a couple of miles to meet friends. We got off school buses and walked up to half a mile, sometimes alone. And all this was a normal part of growing up.
Guess what? Monstrous individuals existed back then, too. Sure the internet makes predators' lives easier. But if your kids are playing outside, wandering with gangs of other children, I would argue they're safer from the odd freak than they would be hunkered over laptops at home. I worry that a generation of privileged kids, raised in lockdown, will not develop street smarts.
I'm not saying kids should be allowed to go wherever they want, whenever they want. But a little freedom is healthy, and I would argue, necessary to the growing up process. Leiby's parents did everything right. They rehearsed the route. For Leiby's maiden solo voyage, they agreed on a meeting place halfway between the camp and their home. When Leiby was late, they mobilized the neighborhood and authorities to search for him.
Leiby was just profoundly unlucky. In fact he wandered into a perfect storm of horrendous, abysmal luck.
So what's the right take away here? I've already said I don't believe in helicopter parenting, or keeping mid-to-late elementary age kids in lockdown. But I do see a teaching opportunity, and it's not as simple as "don't talk to strangers." The Grape sees me and R. chatting with strangers all the time: at the playground and dog park, most frequently, but in other places too. I don't want him so terrified of the neighbors that he's unable to function.
Instead,kids should have it hammered into their heads that they must NEVER, under any circumstances, get in a vehicle with a stranger. No matter what that stranger says, offers or promises. If someone grabs them, they should scream, kick and fight like hell to cause the biggest scene possible.
If they're lost, they should go to a crowded store or business and ask to use the phone, ask a woman (ideally one with kids) for help, or even call 911 and stay on the line with the dispatcher until the police arrive.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because I think a confident kid makes a much less appealing target to the rare psychos of the world than one who's been raised to fear his own shadow.
So please, let's mourn Leiby Kletzky, but not paralyze ourselves with panic.