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How Do You Talk to Your Kids About Stranger Danger?

Taylor Newman

Like all of you, I’m sure, I was shaken to the core by this past week’s news of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky’s murder, in Brooklyn. Any random violent incident shakes people up, but this one seemed to shake parents most profoundly, and for good reason. All of us face the (daunting) challenge of slowly letting our kids develop their independence, venturing—step by step—into the world without our constant supervision. We have to help them do this, to heed their respective calls for hands to hold and for walking alone. Obviously, we have to do this responsibly (we are the adults in the equation, after all), but if we don’t do it—if we opt for the proverbial plastic bubble—we do our children a serious disservice, and eventually deliver them into the world as utterly unprepared adults. The news of Leiby’s kidnapping and murder was so shocking, so terrifying, because his mom handled her son’s requests to walk home from summer camp alone responsibly; they paced the route together. They agreed that she’d meet him half-way. Even so, he never made it. Where do we go from here?

The collective internet opinion seems to be that we must go on— so says this mom, anyway, and this one-- and I agree. Locking our children away is not the answer. But this event does raise the question for me of how we can best equip our kids to keep themselves safe in the event of encountering dangerous adults. It’s a question that’s plagued me, kind of subconsciously, since becoming pregnant, actually: how do we really protect our kids against the adults out there who would, given the opportunity, harm them? I actually doubt that Leiby’s killer is confessing the truth in asserting that Leiby asked him for a ride, quietly sat in the car while his captor stopped in at a wedding miles from Brooklyn, and then was so transfixed by TV that he never asked, wanted or tried to go home. That’s BS. Without trying to guess at what really did happen— it’s a tragic and awful thing that happened, however it went down— I can’t help but wonder how I can keep Kaspar from ever getting into a dangerous person’s vehicle, how I can help him to help himself if he senses danger, ever, at all.

What I come up with, instinctively, is that while children (of a certain age) don’t have size or experience going for them, they do have the most important tool for self-preservation, as all of us do. They have, well, instinct. Gut feelings. I somehow want to impart to Kaspar that he can, and should, listen to those feelings, and if something’s wrong, make it known, make a scene, get other adults’ attention—he will never be reprimanded for that. Teaching children to listen to their instincts with regard to danger, however, means that we have to help them learn to respect those instincts in general, whether they feel comfortable saying hello to a new person we’ve introduced them to or not. I think many of us inadvertently thwart our kids’ sense of what they’re feeling in an effort to bring them up to socially-acceptable speeds with regard to manners and what we perceive as normal meet n’ greet behavior. But I want Kaspar to know that he doesn’t have to be ‘polite,’ or nice, if he doesn’t feel comfortable. Luckily, instinct is a muscle that can be strengthened in more fun ways than boogeyman hypotheticals (though it’s probably prudent to talk about those in some capacity… I’d love to know how you’ve done it), and we can aid in this process by listening to, and respecting, our kids’ preferences and feelings across the board. As a bonus, we’ll raise more confident, capable people in the process.

Of course, this instinct thing doesn’t put my mind entirely to rest in terms of the threat of dangerous adults: what about while Kaspar’s really small, as he is now? We don't use any childcare yet, but are looking into some other options for the fall. Sure, we’re vetting carefully and getting recommendations and falling in love with sun-soaked Montessori classrooms, but how do we know that our child is safe? Don’t we always read about the scout leaders and coaches and clergymen who all of the parents just adored, who then ended up on the news for preying on kids? And, as Kaspar grows, what about other kids’ parents, and all of the people we know pretty well but not intimately? Strangers aren’t the only danger. I guess what I find so hard about this is that I am not inclined to raise Kaspar in a bubble—I trust my own instincts and I think people are generally good. I walked to school with my best friend-- not my mom-- starting in about 2nd grade, too, and was clearly fine. But still, I want to safeguard against real harm, and just hoping it doesn’t strike doesn't feel sufficient.

Lastly, how do we talk to our kids about this stuff without scaring the sh*t out of them? I don’t want Kaspar to walk around seeing potential threat in every corner. I want him to believe—as I do—that people are essentially good. Still, I want him to be prepared, knowing that some people are out to cause harm. I’m so glad that these conversations are a long ways off (kiddo is seventeen months right now and LOVES the heck out of everyone we introduce him to… his world is a world of good friends, at present… May it always be so). I know how fast kids grow, though, and that these conversations will creep up on us soon enough. How have you handled them? How do you walk this delicate line, keeping your kids confident, keeping them happy, and keeping them safe?

I really look forward to your thoughts on this.