Monday, July 18, 2011

Keeping Our Children Safe in a Scary World

Since the horrific murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn last week, a lot of us parents can't stop wondering whether our children are safe and what we can do to keep them from being harmed.

There are a few simple but incredibly crucial things you can - and must - do to keep your children safe. Watching them like a hawk and not letting them go out on their own are not one the list.

The single most important thing every parent must do is have an open relationship with his or her child. Maintain a dialogue with your kids about their daily lives and make sure they feel they can tell you anything. This is not something you can do overnight, especially if you haven't been the type to share with your kids in the past. But you need to express an interest in what's going on in their lives and let them know that they can always come to you - even (especially) if they've done something wrong or think the information will be upsetting to you. If you have this kind of relationship with your child, he or she will feel comfortable asking you questions and bringing up uncomfortable situations.

In addition to fostering an open relationship in which your children know they can tell you anything, there are three messages you MUST get across to your children in order to protect them:

1. There is never a circumstance where an adult can tell you to keep a secret from your parents. If anyone ever tells you "don't tell your mommy and daddy," come tell me about it right away!

2. Your body is your own. Just like a person can't come grab a cookie out of your hand, NO ONE can touch your private parts. (Be clear: These are the parts of your body that your bathing suit covers.)

Be specific about who may and may not touch your children. Don't say "it's ok for relatives and friends." Unfortunately, most cases of sexual abuse are perpetrated by people the child already knows. Tell your child that only Mommy and Daddy can touch his private parts when bathing and dressing him and his doctor when examining him.

3. It's ok to say "no" - even to an adult. If something makes your child feel uncomfortable, there's probably a reason for it. Empower your child and let him know that just because someone is an adult doesn't mean they can touch him or speak to him in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable. Kids have good instincts. They can tell when something feels wrong, but they don't always realize they have a say in the matter.

There are three things you should know about the molestation / kidnapping / murder of children.

1. These crimes are incredibly uncommon. I mean, the chances of one of these things happening to your child are miniscule. We freak out when a big case like Leiby Kletzky's hits the newsstands, but it is extremely extremely rare for these kinds of things to happen. I'm sure that's no comfort to Leiby's family but I'm hoping it will help you.

2. Most of these cases occur when children are unsupervised, especially during the summer months when they're just "hanging out" and have no structure or schedule. So for goodness' sake, send your kids to camp, to their grandparents, to a neighbor, or to a babysitter, but don't let them wander around and get bored!

3. The vast majority of these cases occur to children who are naïve and whose parents never warned them about "stranger danger." They feel they can trust an adult and go with him in his car even though they don't know him. It's an uncomfortable topic to talk about with your children, and please don't go into the details of what happened to Leiby. But do talk to them about the points mentioned above and that they should never, ever get into a car with a stranger, no matter what he says or what he offers them. If they get lost they should call you or find a police officer or go back to the last place they saw you, but by no means should they go with any old adult who offers them a hand.

Finally, here are some things you DON'T want to do. Don't decide to take away their freedom. Do not doubt yourself or your children. And do not scare your kids! The last thing you want is to give your children the idea that the world is an unsafe, scary place. If our children are afraid to go out into the world and see every stranger on the street as a threat, what kind of world are we raising them in? We need to instill confidence in them - confidence in themselves and their capabilities as well as confidence that the world around them is an intrinsically good place - albeit with a few not-so-good people living in it.

Don't start changing the rules on them. If you let your children walk home from school by themselves, don't decide it's too dangerous and insist on driving them from now on. If you were about to let your child ride his bike to a friend's house for the first time, don't question your judgment and tell him he's not old enough after all. Remember, and remind your children, that the "bad guys" are one in a million. Make sure your kids are equipped with the knowledge they need to be safe and protect themselves, and with the confidence that they can do it on their own. (Don't show them you're anxious because they'll detect your anxiety and lose their self-confidence.) It's perfectly acceptable to ask your child to call you when he gets to his friend's house. But let him ride there alone - he's going to have to step out of the nest sometime.

When we feel helpless, our instinct is to be overly cautious and protective of our loved ones. As LA child therapist Miven Trageser says, this works well for belongings but not so well for people. Psychologically speaking, people are actually less safe locked away and protected all the time. Children need to learn and grow, and necessary to this is letting them venture out on their own and learn to be autonomous. One day our children are going to have to grow up. And if we make them wait to experience real life until they're actually grown up, they will not be prepared to live in the real world.

So yes, be afraid. You wouldn't be a good parent if you were completely unphased when something like this happens. But instead of trying to keep them "safe" from reality, talk to your children, prepare them for life, make sure they know how to stay safe and what to do if they feel unsafe. And then watch them take a step into their futures.


Horowitz, Yakov. "Speaking to Your Kids about Personal Safety."

Trageser, Miven. "Leiby Kletzky's death shouldn’t make us fearful parents: Let yours roam free."


  1. Excellent post! I agree 100% At what age do you think it is ok for a kid to venture out alone? Of course, this also depends on neighborhood...

  2. It really depends on each individual kid and his/her maturity level. There is no hard and fast rule. You have to know your kid and you have to know your neighborhood.

    Here ins Israel the rule is that no child may cross the street alone until age 9. I would definitely not let a kid out before age 9, but I wouldn't necessarily let a kid out after age 9 either. Or maybe I would in pairs. I think I'd be more comfortable with 11 or 12, but I don't have kids those ages so I really can't say for sure. Some kids might not be mature enough or trustworthy enough until 14 or 15. You never know, though. Some 9-year-olds are extremely mature.

    A big factor is the child's comfort level. Don't push them to go out on their own if they're not comfortable for it. A lot of times when they say they're ready, they probably are.

  3. Well written Netanya. I would actually add that when a parent is talking to their child, they need to be very specific and explain the word stranger. Many therapists have found that when asking a child to draw a picture of a stranger, they drew a picture of a monster. Thus when a "stranger" came up to the children, they didn't think anything of it because he/she looked like a regular person. This can confuse children. A stranger is not a monster but just someone on the street that you don't know.
    They also should be taught that if someone approaches them that they don't know and tries to have them come with them or take them, they should drop to the ground kicking and scream "You are not my Mommy (or Daddy). Go away!" Often people won't pay attention to a screaming child as they could just be having a temper tantrum with their parent. You need to use words so others will realize it isn't just a tantrum.

  4. I was recently on vacation when two 8 yr old boys went missing. They were found, safe and sound at the boat launch not far away. When their parents were speaking to them about what happened, it turned out they had hung out with a couple of strangers there who were crab fishing. One mom said "Why were you talking to strangers when we have talked and talked about not doing so?" The child responded "Well they had nice voices so we thought they were nice people." That is the problem..that children are way to apt to believe in the good in people.

  5. Thank you both so much for commenting. You make good points!

  6. Great article, Netanya. This world is not safe for our children, and it is important to give them guidance, but not to let them live in fear. Thanks. Carolyn