The horrific murder of Leiby Kletzky, the eight-year-old Brooklyn boy who was abducted while walking home from day camp, has sent panic and sorrow into the hearts of many parents and invoked their worst nightmare. This terrible tragedy has led many parents to worry about the extent to which their own children can be on their own and wondering if their children would know what to do if a stranger approached.
How do parents balance fear and freedom and foster independence without overprotecting children? The best answer is that they should make decisions they feel work for their family. They should think about their own comfort level as well as the child’s age, maturity, and cognitive ability.
Whatever the family’s decision, parents should begin to talk to children at a young age about safety and keeping away from danger. It is important to approach the subject in a non-threatening way so children are not fearful of potentially dangerous situations or people in general. Rather, the goal is to teach them to be able to recognize when something may be wrong and to talk to parents when something is bothering them. The key is to help children feel empowered and to encourage them to develop and trust their intuition.
Safety tips for parents
• Talk to your children about the rules pertaining to strangers. Let them know a stranger or predator looks just like any other person and will use any number of ways to lure a child. Remember, the vast number of children who are victimized know their assailants.
• Know the common predator lures: pretending to look for a lost pet; asking the child for directions; giving or promising candy and/or money if the child will go to their car; and threatening to hurt family members if the child does not comply.
• Use a special code word that only the child knows to convey a message should someone other than a parent ask a child to accompany them anywhere. If the special code word is ever compromised, simply agree to a new word with your child.
• Never label clothing, backpacks, or other personal items with your child’s name. A predator will use this information to try to gain your child’s trust.
• Give your children instructions on what to do if they get separated from you in a public place. Tell them to first find a mother with children or go to a check-out counter or information desk or approach a police officer.
• Make sure that your child knows his or her full name, address, and phone number and how to contact you. They also need to know how to dial 911 and make collect calls.
• Know where your children are at all times, and keep a list of their friends’ names, addresses, and phone numbers.
• Trust your own instincts — if you don’t feel good about a person, keep your child away from that person.
• Continue to rehearse and “role play” to make the learning permanent so your child can react properly when under pressure.
• Before letting children walk without an adult, walk the route with them, pointing out landmarks and make sure they know it forward and backward.
Safety tips for children
• Do not get into any car unless your parents personally tell you to. You should not go near a car to talk to the people inside.
• Adults should not be asking children for help, for directions, or to look for a “lost puppy,” or telling you that your mother or father is in trouble and that they will take you to them.
• Quickly get away from anyone who tries to take you somewhere. Yell or scream: “This person is not my father (or mother).”
• Use the “buddy system” and never go places alone.
• Always ask your parents’ permission to leave the yard/play area or school or to go to someone’s home.
• People should not ask you to keep a special secret. If they do, tell your parents or teacher.
• You have the right to say “No” to someone who tries to take you somewhere against your will, touch you, or who makes you feel uncomfortable in any way.
• No one should touch you on the parts of the body covered by your bathing suit. Your body is special and private.
• Do not hitchhike or try to get a ride with people unless your parents have told you it’s ok.
• If walking without a trusted adult, always go home the same way and never take short-cuts.
Jewish Family Service of MetroWest can help with these discussions and offers programs for early childhood, elementary schools, and middle schools that teach children in a fun and non-threatening way how to keep themselves safe from potential perpetrators. Presentations are interactive and developmentally appropriate. The program also has components for parents and schools, teaching them how to incorporate the material into homes and classrooms. For more information, call Patricia Stern, LCSW, JFS coordinator of child and adolescent services, at 973-637-1773.