Childhood Independence and Child Murder

A few weeks ago, my son asked for permission to walk around the neighborhood by himself.

When pressed for details about where he wanted to go, he couldn’t state his planned route, and couldn’t name the streets and avenues he would be walking.  I encouraged him to lower his sights from taking a stroll around the block to just walking to the corner, crossing the street by himself, going to the next corner, and coming back home.

Even this abbreviated route gave me pause. I live in a very busy section of Harlem. My teenage daughter goes out alone with her friends, but my son, at 10, is not nearly as street-savvy as she is.

But I let my son go on his excursion. The joy on his face when he returned, safely, was palpable.

“I did it!” he shouted.

The illusion of independence fell with the news of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn child who was murdered and dismembered by a stranger the first time his parents let him walk home alone from summer camp. My son greeted me with the news when I came home from work:

“Mommy, a boy my age was taken and killed.”

My son knew all the details of the case. He even compared it to the case of Etan Patz. A family friend, Lisa Cohen, wrote the book After Etan, about the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in the 1970s. My son learned of the Patz case through Cohen’s book. Two cases, a generation apart, sharing eerily similar details.

My son made the connection.

“Guess I can’t go out by myself anymore,” he said.

My son is two years older than Kletzky and four years older than Patz, but he sees the two little boys as “his age.” As a mom, it’s hard not to hear a story about an abducted and murdered child and not think of your own.

Cohen wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News, in which she encouraged parents not to change their parenting solely because of the Kletzky case. Because I know Cohen not just as a writer and filmmaker, but as a caring mom, I spent a few days thinking about her op-ed. I thought about how scary news stories about child murder help parents explain “stranger danger” and many other evils.

When I was in middle school, an old perv in the apartment across the street from my bus stop would shake his penis out his front window at us schoolgirls waiting for the morning bus. We told our parents, and for a few weeks, our dads waited with us for the bus. But we had to keep taking the bus to school. We had to learn how to deal with it – and to stop looking.

And so I decided Cohen was right. Kletzky’s death, though tragic, was no reason to stop letting my son go out alone in the neighborhood. I talked to my son about not living in fear. But I also decided he needed to know his surroundings better.

Now, I make him listen to and repeat subway announcements. I point out to him the subway express and local stops. I grill him on neighborhood landmarks. I have told him how to know when he is facing north (uptown) and south (downtown).

Recently, I let him go to the neighborhood drugstore by himself. I made sure  he knew what to buy, reminded him to count his change, and gave him responses to some basic “what to do if” scenarios. I was nervous until he came back safely, with correct change and no horrible experiences to report.

It’s too soon to let him go completely. He admits he’s not ready to take public transportation by himself. We have time to prepare.

The best we can do as parents is arm our children with information and the tools to develop good judgment. We have to teach them to be responsible, and ready them for independence. We can’t always protect them from the consequences of their choices.

And we can’t destroy ourselves with guilt if the bad thing we are afraid might happen, actually does happen.

5 thoughts on “Childhood Independence and Child Murder

  1. I think you are absolutely right. At only 5 and 4, my kids know all the names of the streets around us – we are constantly talking about them, pointing them out, quizzing them on where we are and which way is home. My brother and I walked home from school since we were 7 and 6, 20+ blocks in Philadelphia. And I’ve been taking public transportation in Philly, bus and subway, since I was 10.

    We cannot let isolated incidents run our lives. The media is a fear machine – it is designed to only point out extraordinary events, while ignoring the ordinary. The ordinary is that 99.99% of the time, children walk or take public transit and nothing happens to them. We need to prepare them to be safe, but we cannot allow fear to run our lives.


  2. I can understand this wholeheartedly! Either my mother or I escorted by daughter to and from school until she was 15 years old, which came in the second half of her freshman year of high school. She never really asked to be freed from such treatment, so much as her arts school schedule, meant that she was in school from 8:30 am until 5:30 pm every day, became less predictable as some rehearsal times went later than the actual school day.

    I wish I could say that having spent the majority of her life here in the DMV, she knows the street names and can tell the difference between what’s uptown and what’s downtown, but that’s not the case. She can, however, figure out how to get home from any Metro station, and she can tell you what buses will take her where she wants to go…for the most part.

    After two years in Philadelphia, though, she knows street names, and can provide directions like a native. That’s the place she considers her home, and she’s much more adventurous there than she is here at home. She walks everywhere she goes, or she catches a cab, but she’s not fond of their public transportation system (I’m sure it’s because she doesn’t understand it, and because most of what she wants is located near her campus).


    1. Yeah, SEPTA in Philly is anything but intuitive. It’s only through having to know it – we didn’t have a car for much of my life – that I am intimately accustomed to it. There is very little outsider logic to most of it. Then again, outside of center city, Philly isnt laid out logically anyway. You have to live it to understand it.


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