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The Leiby Kletzky killing: Every parent's fear

Children want their independence and parents fear for their safety. It's a constant tussle, one underscored by the kidnapping and killing of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in New York.

July 15, 2011
  • Members of the Orthodox Jewish community gather near a poster with information about Leiby Kletzky, the missing Orthodox Jewish boy who was later found dead.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community gather near a poster with information… (Robert Mecea, Associated…)

Like little Leiby Kletzky, my youngest child pleaded for a little more freedom at the age of 8. She wanted to walk by herself the 500 feet up our quiet street in the back of a canyon to the corner school bus stop. Our neighborhood is about as safe as they get, except for summertime rattlesnakes. But cars go racing down our hill; would she really keep to the side of the road? If a stranger approached her while she was waiting for the bus, would she really scream and run as she'd been coached to?

I shut my eyes tightly — something I've done a lot in 28 years of being a mother — to squeeze out the image of a giant SUV hurtling toward my daughter's wavy red hair, and said yes. But my husband would always wait for a few seconds after she left each morning, then sneak out onto the front walk to watch her go up the hill. Not for him, this early independence thing.

Having survived third grade, the question this summer is how much freedom she should have as a high school freshman to roam downtown in our little city. How about at the beach? Swimming buddies still seem a necessity. And in front of a manned lifeguard tower, please.

Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped and killed this week as he walked home alone — seven blocks — from his day camp in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Of such rare and terrible tragedies are a hundred daily parental worries born. Our immediate reaction is to tighten the apron strings a little more. Each horrible event involving a child is examined for clues, for lessons that might keep our kids a little safer, at the same time that we yearn for them to have the kind of childhood we remember — roaming the neighborhood, cell-less and unsupervised, until dinnertime. (Though that might be somewhat romanticized. I also remember that many evenings, as I entered the front door, my parents claimed to have been on the verge of calling the police to find me.)

There are parents who are so casual about their children's doings that their permissiveness borders on dangerous neglect; then there are parents who worry so frantically about each little move that years later their college-age offspring email their professors about what kind of spiral notebook and ballpoint pen they should buy. But most of us are, like the Kletzkys, somewhere on the continuum in between. Trying to balance their safety and our sanity. Taking their independence one step at a time — or one short block at a time — to build competence without injury. Reminding ourselves that kids don't come with total-security warranties, yet knowing that no matter how careful we are, should something awful happen to them, there won't be another morning in our lives without pain and guilt.

A few summers ago, our eldest child, then 23, drove from Santa Barbara to see her little sister in a dance show. But somewhere in Ventura County, she lost control of her car, which spun off the freeway and rolled a few times. The tiny car was totaled, but she was, amazingly, unhurt except for a small bruise where the seatbelt had locked her in place. But we'd lectured her so many times on driving safely! We'd gradually expanded her driving radius as a teenager until her skills developed! I had nightmares all summer and called her often to hear her living voice at the other end of the line. And I made sure the insurance money went toward a bigger car.

— Karin Klein

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