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."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Death in the Family

Q: How do I tell my 2-and-a-half-year-old that her dog died?

A: Talking about death is tricky with little ones. We tend to want to use euphemisms to lessen the blow, but don't be tempted. Euphemisms are confusing for kids and can end up being scarier than the actual truth.

For example, some people refer to death as "going to sleep" for a long time and not waking up. This can lead to a fear of going to sleep, which will result in issues at bedtime that may last a long time. Your daughter might be afraid to let anyone go to sleep, lest they never wake up.

One euphemism that adults often use to refer to dying is "passing away." Sometimes we forget that children don't know what this means. I know a woman who approached the little flower girl at a wedding and said "I'm a friend of your grandma's." The preschooler responded "oh, are you the one that passed away?"

A natural connection for us grownups is the one between illness and death. But resist the temptation to say "Lucky died because she was very sick." Your daughter will be terrified of illness. Every time she, you, or anyone she knows or loves gets a little cold or a sniffle, she'll wonder if they're going to die.

Another thing you don't want to say is "she's gone to be with G-d" or "she went to a better place." My friend's daughter has taken to saying "I don't care if I die, Mummy, because I'll go to heaven and it's better there anyway!"

I have found that the best way to explain death to little kids is to say that the person (or animal) got very very old and his/her body stopped working. Just like sometimes an old toy stops working because it's old and we've had it for a very very long time and we can't fix it anymore. Lucky's body died, but her soul (the part of her that we loved, that was playful and silly and was inside her, in her heart) is - fill in the blank - with G-d, looking down on us from heaven, etc. Or you can just leave it at that.

Be prepared for a lot of questions. Especially "When will Lucky come back?" My grandmother died when my daughter was three-and-a-half. She's five now, and every once in awhile she still asks me when Great Grandma is coming back! The finiteness of death is very difficult for children to grasp. You're going to have to gently remind her every time she asks that Lucky won't come back. She loves us very much but she can't come back because she died and her body doesn't work anymore. But we can think about her and talk about her and look at pictures of her to remember her, and it's OK to be sad and miss her - Mommy misses her too.

Your daughter is too young to make this connection, but one day, like my daughter did recently, she might ask "Are you going to die, Mommy?" Here's where I recommend against honesty. We know that nothing is certain in this world, but for a young child, the knowledge that Mommy and Daddy are going to be there tomorrow is everything. So as hesitant as you may feel, try to sound confident when you say "Everybody dies, and one day Mommy will die too. But not for a long long time, when I'm very very old and you're very very old too. You don't need to worry about that."

Make sure she's asked you all her questions and gotten satisfactory answers. Then change the subject and bring out the toys.