Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In Defense of Paranoia and Over-Protectiveness

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.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Yeah, Mags, I'm pretty much with you. I get the one woman's point about giving into fear, but I think it's smarter and more likely to be a success when we stand up to fear of some types as adults, not as more vulnerable children. I'd rather see parents and those adults who aren't parents do things to "take back the streets" individually and together than see kids sent out like weather balloons to see what the conditions are like out there. People seem to forget that many who seek to harm others do exactly that--they seek and work and plan and wait. It is so often like work to them, with a methodology and a real dedication applied to the target. That, and it seems so easy to me to do little things to let your child grow and be more independent without being unsafe. There are things between the two points on the wide continuum between agoraphobia and death-wish.

    To keep that thread weaving, I do want to emphasize that I feel that so many of us take that somewhat reasonable paranoia (anyone out there read Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear"?) we lived under as kids into adulthood without growing past it, changing our actions stemming from it. We let people who, criminal and evil though they are, be "braver" or at least more brazen in walking and using our public spaces to make us suffer and lose out. We never stop the open or the covert intimidation. Does that make sense? One illustration is the way neighbors come out and say that the killer next door was always "quiet and kept to him/her self" when the real truth is that warning signs were openly posted for a long time before things turned so wrong. I think we, humans, pretend we didn't see it coming for two reasons: 1) we feel guilty for not stepping up and in sooner and 2) we just don't want to think those ugly thoughts and face those ugly things. Most of us are not evil or cruel or crazy, and we don't like rubbing up against any of those things for real.

  2. Vicky, well said (as usual). And if you find the right point between "agoraphobia and death-wish" please let me know, because as you know all too well, I swing from one extreme to the other with no in between. :-) Maggie

  3. Great blog. As the "worrier" of the family, I know that some of my concerns are my own craziness. But when it comes to kids, better to err on the side of caution, extreme caution.

    What breaks my heart is that 99.9% of the time we or our kids can make a mistake, and we live to regret it, learn from it, move on. But once in a while, we don't get a do-over and tragedy unfolds. So very sad.


  4. Kids and young people have no concept of danger. When I was a kid we wandered around everywhere on our own. My only rule was to be home by 5--dinner. When my own kids were growing up, had more rules, needed to know where kids were going but still not as strict as people need to be today. Seems like there are more crazies loose than ever.


  5. Maggie, sometimes the big, bad world seems so scary that even I don't want to go outside. I can totally understand your fears. I worry about Ed when he drives 30 minutes north for hockey in the dark of night. I try like hell to wait up until he gets home, even if it's past midnight. And he's 37 years old! My only kids are furry, and they stay indoors. There will definitely come a day when Dea and Patrick understand. Until then, don't feel even the slightest bit bad/wrong/guilty for being such a concerned mom. :-)

  6. I raised my kids in the suburbs where they went out after lunch and showed up again close to dinner. When I moved to a small town in California, I assumed the same rules applied, and I'll never forget the day my nine year old informed she was off to the local school (two blocks away) alone. I saw take her independence in her hands, and it brought tears to my eyes. Then the day came when some guys on motor cycles buzzed her on the way. We walked her from then on. What was lost was so much bigger than a sense of safety. I became paranoid, and was very protective after that. What a shame that we have come to this-to balance our sense of safety with our justified fears, and our children's need for autonomy.
    And I don't have the answers either.

  7. When my kids give me hard time, I remind them of what I do for a living and that when you write mysteries, you're always thinking about how things can go wrong for ordinary people. Thanks for writing, Lil; it's nice to know that I'm not alone. Maggie

  8. Just sign me as the equally insane parent. My kids tell me I have an over active imagination, which I do. But you don't have to have any imagination to read a headline like that, shake your head, and simply say, "Because I said so, that's why..." Great post, Maggie!!