Family Matters

A Young Boy’s Murder Has Parents Second-Guessing Their Decisions

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New York Police Department / AP

Leiby Kletzky

Kids can be very persuasive. That must have been the case with 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who talked his parents into letting him walk home alone on July 11 from his day camp in Brooklyn. His parents made a deal with him. After they reviewed the route — seven blocks — they agreed that his mother would meet him halfway. The boy never made it.

His body was found on Wednesday, carved into bits — his feet allegedly in the freezer of a stranger named Levi Aron, whom police say Leiby had the great misfortune of asking for directions when he got lost on the way to meet his mom. Aron was arrested and charged with murder on Wednesday.

The case has struck fear and doubt in many parents, and left them to rethink their own rules for letting their children out alone into the world. Leiby usually took the bus home from camp; on Wednesday he had a note from his parents saying he would not be getting on the bus.

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“Parents know their children better than anyone else. They have to make certain judgments,” New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly said mercifully at a press conference. “There comes a time when everyone has to go forward on their own, and it’s up to the parents to make those determinations.”

It’s not unusual for young children to navigate Leiby’s Borough Park neighborhood — home to an intimate community of Hasidic Jews — by themselves. But safe has now taken on a new meaning for many New York City parents. “When I heard about the story of the little boy in Brooklyn, I thought about the number of blocks he was walking alone,” Julliete Jones, a divorced mother of a 7-year-old boy and a resident of Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood, told the New York Times. “Maybe at 10 or 11 years old, I will let him walk alone. But after this, I’m rethinking that.”

I don’t live in Borough Park, so I can’t know what decision I would have made had my own 8-year-old son asked to walk home alone. But I left my son alone in the house yesterday — with the door wide open, letting in the afternoon sun — while I walked my younger daughters down the block. They had asked to walk alone. When we met some repairmen on the way, I couldn’t help but automatically, nonsensically feel grateful that I’d said no and accompanied the girls. Yet in no way do I think Leiby’s parents made a bad decision.

There is no magical age at which children become ready to tackle a new challenge, and moms and dads who think otherwise are only deluding themselves. As parents, it’s our job to foster independence in our children and to gauge when they’re ready for each incremental step. Some 6-year-olds may be ready to cross the street without an adult; others may be too dreamy to accomplish that task safely for several more years.

“Anybody who dares blame the mom, shame on them,” says Lenore Skenazy, whose son was 9 when she took him to Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan and let him ride the subway home by himself. “There is nothing wrong with letting your children have the freedom we had when we were children.”

Skenazy’s son had been imploring her to navigate his own way home for a while, and two years ago, Skenazy figured he was ready. He returned, suffused with confidence, and Skenazy wound up launching a blog, Free-Range Kids (she’s also written a book by the same name), to explain a philosophy she had not yet even codified for herself: “I believe in precautions, but I don’t think that kids need a security detail every time they leave the home.”

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On Wednesday, she wrote critically of the people who fault Leiby’s parents:

People will blame the parents for letting their son walk even a few blocks on his own. I’ve already read some of those comments. They are like knives. Is it better to have a city — a country, a world — where no child is ever outside again without an adult? Where parents who let their kids walk to the bus stop are treated like pariahs? Where the parks are empty, the playgrounds are empty, bikes sit in the garage and children hunker inside with their terrified moms and dads?

The murder rate is lower in New York City than it has been in 50 years, Skenazy points out; Leiby’s death is but a horrific anomaly. For many New Yorkers, it brought to mind another local disappearance, one that occurred more than 30 years ago, when 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished after begging to be allowed to walk to his school bus stop alone, two blocks away from his SoHo home.

These tragedies grab headlines, but they’re hardly typical, notes Tablet Magazine, which refracted Leiby’s murder through a Jewish lens on parenting:

This act of violence was utterly unforeseeable — the random result of a set of cascading tragic coincidences. If the picture being drawn by investigators is true, Leiby Kletzky’s parents, however ravaged by guilt they undoubtedly are at this moment, did nothing wrong, and anyone who claims otherwise is a sinner of the first order. These two adults were engaged in that delicate dynamic that turns parenting into an art: The alternating two-step of protecting a child while slowly, thoughtfully allowing him progressively wider experiences of independence.

“This is beyond the exception,” agrees Skenazy, who draws a comparison between the number of kids kidnapped and killed by strangers annually — statistics put that number at about 50 — and the number of children under 14 killed in car accidents each year, which is more than 1,300.

On her blog, Skenazy speaks out as the antithesis of the helicopter parent, believing that children need to learn how to fend for themselves. “The idea that the only good parent is a parent who has her eyes literally upon her children 24/7 is a modern, post-1980s notion,” she says. “Once in a while, some gut-wrenching, stick-a-knife-through-my-heart story happens, and it’s everyone’s deepest, darkest fear. It is hard to send our kids out after a story like this, but we have to.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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