My kids say I’m paranoid.
They also say that I’m overprotective.
Yes, and definitely yes.
Being a parent is to know fear as you have never known it before. Maybe I’m a little overly dramatic (ok, I am), but to wait for your teenaged daughter to come back from a run that inexplicably goes past dusk brings anxiety. Or to have your twelve-year-old walk through the door ten minutes later than he is supposed to from his trek home from school is panic inducing. I’ve tried to explain to the kids what goes on in my mind, but they still think I’m crazy, and I guess that’s ok. To me, it’s a dangerous world out there, something I try to communicate to them without scaring the dickens out of them and making them paranoid like me but they still think I’m crazy and I understand that. I thought my parents were crazy, too, when I was both a tween and a teen.
Now, however, I “get” it.
Last week, here in New York, an eight-year-old boy went missing on the first day he was allowed to walk home alone from camp. After begging his parents to let him walk home from camp, they had relented, telling him that they would meet him half way. He left camp, got lost, and encountered the one person—because I am convinced that 99 out of 100 pedestrians would have led him to his parents—who saw his situation as an opportunity to do harm. The man, Levi Aron, a citizen in the tight-knit Hasidic community where this little boy lived and worshipped with his family, took him in his car—probably telling him that he would take him to his parents—brought him home and kept him in his attic apartment for a day. The manhunt that ensued after little Leiby Kletzy’s disappearance caused Aron to panic. So, he killed the boy by suffocating him.
My husband read the story in the paper and looked at our oldest, saying, “And this is why we’re crazy.”
We’re crazy because one chance encounter can have dire consequences. Sure, these situations are rare, but they are not completely out of the realm of possibility and that’s what makes them all the more horrifying. Here in the New York metropolitan area, no one can get the image captured on a security camera of that little boy, walking along a busy Brooklyn street, his backpack on his back, walking toward a stranger who had more than one screw loose. Every time I see it, I want to scream at the boy in the video to “keep walking!” But he keeps going, not a care in the world, toward the stranger who will do him the ultimate harm.
All parents have been in situations where they have had to make a decision like the one Lieby Kletzky’s parents made. “Can I walk home today?” “Can I stop at the ice cream store on the way home from school?” “Can I take the bus to the mall?” “Can I go to the midnight show of ‘Harry Potter’?” His parents, who are raising their family in an insular, and up to this point, practically crime-free city neighborhood, probably felt somewhat comfortable letting him go. After all, the streets in this neighborhood team with other families, other parents, and people who would help the little guy find his way when he got lost. I’m sure that they never banked on the fact that a lunatic walked among them on their quiet city streets, someone who would look for the opportunity to hurt a child.
The letters to the editor in our local paper were, for the most part, sympathetic, but of course there were the few that placed blame squarely on the boy’s parents for letting an eight-year-old walk home from camp, a distance of about ten blocks. He was too young, they claimed. He didn’t have enough experience with the world, they wrote. It’s too dangerous out there, they opined. Perhaps all true. But once the decision was made the parents fretted a bit, I’m sure, but decided that in their neighborhood, one where everyone is very similar, very family-oriented, very religious and caring of one another, nothing bad would happen. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, the one where you make the decision that you have fought against only to acquiesce and have it turn against you in the worst way possible.
I read an editorial in yesterday’s paper by a mother in Los Angeles who allows her young child walk to and from school and who gives him freedoms that even my teenager doesn’t have. Giving into fear, she posits, means the terrorists have won or something like that. By not allowing our children some basic freedoms, she says, we are imprisoning them in our hysteria, creating fearful and dependent children not ready to take on the world. She’s right about one thing: I’m not ready for my children to take on the world. If that makes me an hysteric, so be it. Intellectually, I know I cannot protect them from every harm or every monster that roams the landscape. I know that ultimately, I have no control over every situation. But I have to control the things that I can in the hope that I can keep them safe.
I can’t stop thinking about the little boy in the striped shirt, walking down a safe city street, his backpack on his back. In my mind, he turns around and goes the other way, away from the maniac who took his life and ruined his family’s. I don’t think I ever will forget him, just like I have never forgotten six-year-old Etan Patz, a little boy who disappeared in 1979 on a New York City street on the day he walked to his bus stop, never to be found. His disappearance changed how parents viewed freedom and independence for years to come. So every time either one of my children asks me why I’m so overprotective, why I’m so paranoid, I’ll say a little prayer for sweet Leiby Kletzky and his family and tell my kids that some day, they’ll understand.