Is it Paranoia?
Last week's column sparks a debate and a case of child abduction fuels fear.
After last week’s column a Facebook friend made an interesting observation. “Paranoia strikes deep,” she said. “I just think that paranoia (excessive fears, coupled with expensive (in many ways) efforts to make everything safe) is rampant at all levels of our society -- national, state, local, and in individual families. We readily give up all kinds of freedoms when the word "security" is uttered.… And I do feel sad for the kids. Yes, they do have the benefit of knowing that their parents love them and trying to keep them safe, but in other ways, I believe that their lives are (perhaps unnecessarily) diminished.”
Then the story of Leiby Kletzky’s brutal and senseless murder broke, and with it the dilemma every parent faces. How much freedom is enough for your child to grow up able to be a functional adult and how much is bordering on dangerous neglect?
Kletzky’s parents were not neglectful. They responded to their child’s pleas to walk home alone by going over the route he would take with him, and agreeing that mom would meet him halfway home. But Leiby got lost and never met his mother.
The natural reaction for parents when we hear stories like Leiby’s is to tighten the apron strings, reign in freedoms that have been granted and be ever more vigilant with our children.
Is there any particular age that a child should be allowed to walk home alone? I wasn’t comfortable with my daughter walking home until middle school; some parents are more comfortable when their children are older or younger than that. I think the most important thing is that you know your child best; you know when they can handle certain things and when they aren't ready.
The Kletzky story is even more heartbreaking for me as I read the comments people leave on various sites condemning the parents for allowing their son to walk home. The Kletzsky’s aren’t negligent parents, and to condemn them is just cruel. As a parent I cannot imagine the pain they are feeling right now. I do imagine they will be haunted for the rest of their lives by ‘if only;’ they certainly don’t need others adding to the guilt they surely already feel. Besides, children his age walk home every day without being abducted and murdered. It was an anomaly.
As my Facebook friend went on to say, “Boatloads of behavioral research thoroughly demonstrates that humans fail to understand statistics, which leads to many of our mistakes due both to purely cognitive errors (extrapolating from a single incidence to a belief in the likelihood of a similar instance in our personal lives), and to behaviors and thinking that are overly influenced by fear. We over-estimate risk (of crime), in particular, and also irrationally believe that we can make the world safe.”
She’s right of course. Cases like Leiby Kletzky are mercifully rare, however when they do happen they shake us to our core. The moment you become a parent, part of your rational brain is replaced with an animal instinct to protect your child. The mama/papa tiger comes out in us. You can not, by sheer force of will, make a baby breathe, but that didn’t stop my OBGYN from standing over the crib of her newborn son all night long trying to do just that, and she was a trained medical professional. When my daughter was a newborn I physically ran at a breakneck speed, pushing her stroller from one side of the grocery store to the other because someone an aisle away was coughing. We've all checked on our babies in the middle of the night after hearing about a tragic SIDS death.
As a parent we feel an unprecedented level of helplessness, because contrary to what my friend said we realize we cannot protect our children from everything in this world. The fear that grips you as a parent is something that you let go of in stages. It strikes the moment you are handed a tiny helpless individual and told to take care of it, and don’t break it. The letting go is little by little, in small yet monumental increments. You do let go, you have to or you’d go crazy with worry. Their firsts are your firsts too, but the scary part for us is we know about the potential dangers, but we have to allow them to grow up and take responsibilty for themselves. Letting go can be saying okay, you can walk home from school, but mom will meet you halfway, as the Kletzky's did with their son. It can be allowing your child to stay home alone for a short time while you run to the drugstore. These are the baby steps that lead to the bigger steps, driving a car, going off to college, etc.
A child’s death turns everything on its ear. No amount of rationality, cold hard facts or personal history and experience will ever cause it to make sense. It is our worst nightmare come true. And in those moments it doesn't matter that it's an anomaly, because there is potential for danger. We naturally examine the guidelines we've set for our kids looking for chinks in the armor, gaping holes that would allow someone or something in to hurt our child. We teach our children to be vigilant and how to handle themselves, and pray it sticks. As I told my friend, it's about achieving a balance. Somewhere between never allowing our children to be out of our sight, and basically running free is where most of us strive to be with our kids. That's not paranoia, that called parenting.