The Leiby Kletzky Tragedy: When Is a Child Ready to Travel or Walk Alone?

little girl-windowThe story of Leiby Kletzky is a horrific one because it magnifies every parent’s worst nightmare: a child’s life is lost because of misplaced trust in a stranger.  The 8-year-old was walking home alone, for the first time, in his Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn when he got lost. While asking for directions, Kletzy was kidnapped and went missing for a few days until police found his body.  What has shocked everyone is the brutal way his body was disposed, and the fact that murder happened in a close-knit religious community founded on trust. 

As police continue their investigation into the motives behind the young boy’s death, parents are left with tough questions: When is a child ready to travel or walk home alone?  How can kids be taught to stay alert?  In what ways can parents balance their fear of the world with their child’s desire for independence?

We spoke to Dr. Yoni Schwab, a child psychologist at the Windward School in White Plains, N.Y., and a Parents expert, to get his thoughts and advice on how parents can help their kids be self-reliant while remaining alert to potential dangers in this world.

At what age is a child old enough to travel by himself, whether by public transportation or walking home (from school, camp, library, store, bus or subway stop) alone? 

There are no hard and fast rules about age. It depends on the child, the neighborhood, the length and complexity of the trip, and the time of day, among other things. In some neighborhoods, 8-year-olds can walk a couple blocks to a friend’s house while some 12-year-olds may live in a place that’s not safe enough to travel independently.

How do parents know when a child is ready? What characteristics determine independence?

Find out any relevant laws in your area and then speak to other parents to get a sense of what is customary in the community and how they managed the process [for independence.] (This advice comes from Wendy Mogel’s excellent book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.) Finally, you need to know your child. Really knowing your child is the only way to determine if she is ready. Quiz the child about what she might do in different circumstances. Observe your child when walking outside. Does she pause and look both ways before crossing the street? Does she notice details about the environment and possible dangers? Try walking a few steps behind the child to observe and see how she does on her own. Is your child attentive to his surroundings, thoughtful, responsible, and appropriately cautious? Or is your child impulsive, spacey, and overly trusting? All of these factors go into a decision about when to allow your child to travel alone.

If parents determine their child is ready to travel alone, what precautions and preparations should the parents and child take?

It’s important to have a mature conversation about the rules and do’s and don’ts of traveling independently. Prompt him to come up with safety guidelines and write a plan together. It may even be helpful to have your child sign an agreement to follow these rules and guidelines. Dry runs are also key. They allow the child to practice and gain confidence, and they allow you to watch the child, give feedback, and look around for potential pitfalls. If the distance is more than a few blocks and the child is old enough, let him carry a cell phone in case  he gets lost or feels unsafe.

For tight-knit or small communities, there’s often an innate trust in others with similar backgrounds.  When this trust is challenged, how can parents and children balance their fears of the worst with the need for freedom?

In tight-knit communities, trust is important and often well-placed. The vast majority of adults your child will meet in life are trustworthy. However, each child needs to learn boundaries for dealing with strangers, no matter how trustworthy they may seem. Asking for directions, particularly from a uniformed official or a store clerk, is safe in most neighborhoods. Getting into a car or accepting a gift is not. Specific, age-appropriate behavioral guidelines, tailored to your community, are important to articulate to your child.

How do parents navigate the line between “don’t talk to strangers” and fear of the unknown and being able to function and interact in the real world? 

Just as adults learn to relate in a positive, friendly way without revealing whole life stories when meeting new people, children can also learn to be friendly toward strangers without exposing themselves to unnecessary risks. The tone you set as a parent, that begins with how you interact with each person you meet, has a powerful effect on your child. For example, allow children to practice greeting new adults respectfully. They should learn not to speak about personal topics, such as family finances or health issues. Teach them not to accept gifts and not to travel with an adult unless a parent (or caregiver) has given approval.

How can parents teach their kids how to navigate an uncertain world without making them scared of it?

The most important thing is the mindset of the parents. On the one hand, there are real risks. For example, car accidents kill tens of thousands of Americans each year. On the other hand, many risks we think about every day don’t occur often. For example, the rate of stereotypical stranger abductions is exceedingly rare–somewhere between 1 in 650,000 and 1 in 1.5 million children per year. In the last 20 years, parents have become increasingly paranoid about allowing their children to go outside alone, but psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that humans are very poor assessors of risk.

Of course, I would be horrified if something terrible happened to my child, but I need to balance the risk with the benefits. Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids has a thoughtful and provocative book on this topic.  It’s not healthy for a child’s development to live a “bubble-wrapped” life. This runs the danger of making kids anxious, risk-averse, socially stilted, over-dependent, immature, incapable of handling adversity, and downright unhappy. Kids should have joyous adventures filled with age-appropriate risks that help them build skills, confidence, and character. Keeping this balance in mind will help parenting decisions be balanced, too.

How protective should parents be without being too overprotective? Should they “track” kids using mobile apps that determine their child’s locations?

Micro-managing a child’s life is a dangerous game. There is a lot of research that suggests parental “involvement” and “monitoring” are essential to a child’s safety and healthy development, but too much involvement can also make a child overly dependent because he has neither the skills nor the self-reliance to face basic life tasks independently. Over-involved parents also run the risk of making a child feel controlled, and this can lead rebellion. Children need to feel trusted to gain self-esteem, but parents can still be involved in an unobtrusive way.

Always give your children a little more leeway than you feel completely comfortable giving.  Allow them a chance to prove their trustworthiness. Monitor your children’s online activities when they are younger and slowly remove your involvement as they demonstrate trustworthiness. Be explicit about how much monitoring you will do, what the “terms of use” are, and how they can prove themselves. (It’s probably a good idea to remain Facebook friends until they turn 18.) Use tracking software on your child’s phone when she is experimenting with a new level of freedom. Then, reduce your usage and return to it only if she violates your trust. Be clear with your child that, as she communicates openly and earns more of your trustworthy, she will continue to gain additional privileges. Otherwise, privileges and trust will need to be earned back.

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  1. by Jamie

    On July 19, 2011 at 10:49 am

    I was a street smart latch key kid with common sense at the age of 8, but that was 15 years ago. Whether or not I want to believe it, times have changed. I believe that there are key factors into preventing such a situation. Part of it is knowing your child, and how much common sense and street smarts they have. You also have to be aware of the bad things in your neighborhood that you would rather believe aren’t there. Looking for registered offenders in the area, so you know what dangers are lurking, and teaching your children to avoid certain streets or paths. If you have a close knit community, talk with your neighbors, see if any of them would keep an eye on your child to make sure the walk safely home. It’s harder in the city to keep track of children. Being a stay at home mom, I have a few neighbors who leave to work before their children get on the bus, and I keep and eye on the kids because we’ve had a lot of bus stop kidnappings. If anything be on top of the news, and pay attention. These things might save a child’s life, even if it may not be your own.

  2. by cheryl cousins

    On July 19, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I think in this day and age, no one is looking out for anyone, it’s all about me attitute. Parents in my neighborhood, really don’t look out for another’s child, they barely look out for thier own, that is the worst problem I see, too many parents that do feel that thier 7 yr old is “Grown” and can do things by themselves, I see a lot of 6-8 yr olds riding bikes with no parents around, to see where they are going, if they have helmets, and if they are alone, with friends or anything that shows security. I personally feel an 8 yr old child is too young to walk alone, and unless a parent is watching exactly where the child is going, children tend to lose thier way, and get distracted at such early ages. I think even 10 year old should be monitored on their whereabouts if parents are not watching, however I feel around 10 it would be time to get them adapted to learning to do more things on thier own by 11 and by 12 they can walk the 2 blocks by themselves. They will feel more secure, and they will learn more about thier surroundings from when they were younger, but not at 8 what will they really know.. I see kids all the time playing at bustops, and fooling around, and not “paying attention” to the aherent dangers around them. Even if children are smart, and a lot of them are, but that is taking chances that should not be taken at such early ages.

  3. by hannah

    On July 20, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    When I heard this story I thought of the recent coming out of Jamie Lee Dugard’s story. You can tell your children not to talk to strangers and always walk with friends but she was doing just that. She was with 2 other friends and was kidnapped, stun gunned and taken by evil people. That is what scares me. Her story made me understand why my mother never wanted me- her only child to go out at night alone or always call her 100x. Now that I have 2 kids of my own I know I can one day talk to them endlessly about safety but in reality there is no way to stop these crazy people. If they want to get a child they can, and they can kidnap them for 18 years and no one will know.
    I pray for this world to be a better place for us and our future.

  4. by MaileySmith

    On August 4, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Great article very informative. When is the child ready to travel or walk alone it vary on the child age and how mature, they are. I would like to share the article I just read on how technology evolves for Public Safety this would help a lot of parents. It’s a safety device this would be their great weapon if an emergency strike. Check them out and see how amazing it works. Follow this link:

  5. by Momof1

    On August 5, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Kids are taught by parents and school at a very young age (1+) not to talk to strangers. I understand this boy was asking directions and not agreeing to get in a vehicle with a stranger. We just need to keep drilling it into their heads that not all strangers are nice people and that we need to be wary.

  6. by Maria

    On August 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    It’s great to read a common sense response to this issue rather than just a blanket “never let them out alone.” Know your child, know your neighborhood. The book he mentions is wonderful.

    The Dugard case, while very sad, is very extreme. Situations like that are extremely rare. There are 115 stereotypical abductions in the entire US per year (and there are almost 75 million children from the 2010 census,) but 500 children are injured and 4 children are killed every day in cars. Yet we continue to travel with children in our cars, and no one castigates parents for it.

    For me, personally, it’s more important to raise a child who can make his way in the world than to shelter him too much in fear of something that is less likely to happen than winning the lottery.

  7. by Maria

    On August 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Momof1, the book Protecting the Gift, on safety, is another really good book. He says not to teach your children not to talk to strangers, but which strangers to ask for help if you need it. Moms with kids, is one. Someone who works at the store is another. Not necessarily police officers because if a child can’t read, they can’t tell if a badge is real or not.

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