Saturday, July 30, 2011

Leiby Kletzky vs. Free Range Kids

Earlier this month, Leiby Kletzky, a boy the same age as my oldest, was killed by a stranger on the first day his parents allowed him to walk the seven New York City blocks between day camp and home by himself. For several years, I've been aware of a New York mom and blogger who calls her parenting style "raising Free Range kids"; she famously let her 9-year-old ride the subway and bus by himself. She approaches parenting from the angle that our society has gotten so concerned with safety that we don't allow our kids to have valuable life experiences. Before Leiby Kletzky died, I definitely put myself more on the Free Range end of the spectrum. After all, one of the key tenets we really agree with from Parenting with Love & Logic is that your kids have to do things for themselves and learn some of the best lessons by failing.

On the one hand, I can maintain my rational and strategic approach to allowing my kids the freedom they need to grow up. On the other hand, I find it hard to ignore the gruesome murder of a kid my kid's age at the hands of a stranger. The fact that Levi Aron took and killed Leiby on the first day he'd convinced his parents to let him walk home by himself makes the event almost unfathomably scary. The ease with which stories like Leiby's get disseminated (along with a media culture that hangs on tenaciously to stories like this) make us fear for our children at this moment in time. In public policy school, I learned that risk = probability of the hazard x severity of the hazard. In rational terms, what happened to Leiby Kletzky is at once the worst thing that could happen and an extremely rare case.

Yesterday, when I needed to grab my wallet out of my car after we were already in a store, I let my kids wait outside in front of the store, while I ran across the wide street. Pre-Leiby, I would have done the same thing with little worry. Yesterday, I looked back across the street at them two or three times, just checking, just in case, in the time it took to fetch my wallet. The awful tape in my head was saying "I needed my wallet, and it seemed silly for all three of us to cross the street..."

Bad things happen. In that context, Paige and I try to lean on preparing our kids as well as possible to avoid the bad things. We set parameters around the freedoms we afford our children. Some of the analysis in the Kletzky case has focused on the impossibility of anticipating this attack. Levi Aron had no criminal record and nothing to suggest capability of grizzly murder. Mr. & Mrs. Kletzky had set parameters; Leiby was to walk straight home, and his mother was to meet him halfway. The unthinkable happened anyway.

If you read Competent Parent regularly, you'll know that I like to sew my posts up with a nice, clean conclusion. This topic keeps me from doing that. How do we raise our kids to embrace life experiences and grow without undue fear while at the same time doing our very best to protect them from forces in this world that can be so savage?

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