My ten year old daughter Nicole can’t seem to keep up with the rest of us when we are walking. She is always about three to six feet behind us. Sometimes she’s just strolling, sometimes she’s dancing, but usually she’s just in her own world. She does this on the sidewalk, crossing the street, in parking lots. I worry that a car will come around the corner and clip her, not seeing her because she isn’t walking with the group. Or that once she starts hanging out with friends on her own, she might fall behind from the crowd and lose the safety that comes in numbers. I also just want her to keep up with us and stop strolling so much in a world where others are walking as if they have someplace to go.
Nicole has recently become interested in horror movies, even though the most horrific thing she’s seen is some Disney show about vampire babysitters. So, in order to get her to keep up with the group, I explained to her how in those horror movies, it’s always the one who strays from the group, ventures into the empty basement or lags behind who gets eaten by the monster. Natalie, my eight year old, finds that particularly amusing, so whenever Nicole is walking behind us, she warns her, “Remember, the one who lags behind…” In our family, it’s become a funny reminder about safety. Until it isn’t funny anymore. In a summer full of horrific happenings – the Caylee Anthony case, the case of the teen who killed his parents with a hammer then threw a party that night inviting his friends over via Facebook or the mother and daughter found beheaded in their home – the story of the murder and dismemberment of an eight year old boy from Brooklyn, Leiby Kletzky, moved me so that it caused me to rethink, as a parent, how I talk to my own children about being safe.
Leiby, like my girls, wanted to have more freedom to be on his own. Mine are constantly asking when I’ll let them walk home from school, visit a friend or go to the mall on their own. Leiby’s parents agreed to his request to walk home from his first day of camp on his own, and seemingly did all the right things to keep him safe. They did a practice run with him on the day before, walking the route home. But the next day, when he tried to walk home alone, he got lost, turned around in his own neighborhood, and asked the wrong person for help.
I joke with my girls about the horror movie stereotype of bad things happening to the one who lags behind. But after hearing about Leiby, even though I normally shield them from hearing those types of stories on the news, I decided to tell them about what happened to him – not in gruesome detail, but enough so that we could take our conversation about safety to a different level. I want them to know that sometimes the one that lags behind does get devoured by the monster. I want them to know that the monsters aren’t only in the movies and that most of the time they don’t even look like monsters. I want them to understand that the monsters can be very clever or very crazy or both. And I want them to have the mental, emotional and physical tools to avoid the monsters or do battle with them if they have to.
So I told them about what happened to Leiby and explained that I was telling them because I wanted to make sure that they understood that things do happen and the need to be careful. We used it as an opportunity, another “teachable moment” to talk about what you do when you’re out on your own, how you ask for help, how you protect yourselves. Yes, we’ve had all these conversations before, but in a much more theoretical way. But this was something real that happened and in that same situation, with the stakes at life and death, I wanted them to think about what they would do and how they would react. We talked a lot, and cried a little, thinking about the young boy from Brooklyn, his family and his community. Wishing that no child, no parent, no family would ever have to deal with such unimaginable pain again. But knowing that more than likely, tomorrow’s news would bring another story and that the best we can do as parents is try again and again to remind our children what to do to be safe and how not to be the one who lags behind.