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