With Boy’s Killing, Parents Confront Worst Fears
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Every day, parents put their faith in those rules and send their children, with a silent prayer, off into the world, trying to push away the knowledge that something bad could happen, as if thinking it would make it come true.
On Wednesday, it did come true for one Brooklyn family, as the body of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was found dismembered two days after he disappeared on a short walk between his day camp and where he was supposed to meet his parents. The boy, who had implored his parents for permission to walk home from camp alone, got lost and ran into a stranger who, the police said, kidnapped and killed him.
For parents across New York City, the tragedy set off a wave of fear, self-doubt and sometimes fatalism, not seen perhaps for 32 years, since Etan Patz, who was 6, vanished after begging to be allowed to walk alone to the bus stop, just two blocks from his home in SoHo.
The rules of parenting suddenly seemed flimsy, and the world became a scarier place, despite the relatively low crime rate.
“It hasn’t happened for a long time,” said Leslie Wolf-Creutzfeldt, a mother of two on the Upper West Side. “One feels kind of safe about the city, because there are so many people around. But if it happens to be a crazy person, then you realize, maybe, there’s nothing you can do.”
Parents tried to banish the unseemly relief that it was not their child who was taken. Some, if only because it was too painful to imagine otherwise, expressed the wishful conviction that they, through some marvel of judgment or technology, would navigate the minefields of parenting better.
“When I heard about the story of the little boy in Brooklyn, I thought about the number of blocks he was walking alone,” said Julliete Jones, a divorced mother of a 7-year-old boy, publishing consultant and Gramercy resident. “Maybe at 10 or 11 years old I will let him walk alone. But after this, I’m rethinking that.”
Some parents confessed that they monitor their children obsessively in a way not possible a generation ago, tracking their location through iPhones, or calling them repeatedly on their cellphones, even if — especially if — there was no answer.
“You live with that constant fear,” said Donna Zilkha, a mother of three children who grew up on the Upper East Side. “You have to give them the key at 12, because the kid needs to know you trust them. You hope they know about the doormen, the safe havens.”
But to a large degree, the fear is internal, and never leaves. “My daughter just moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side,” Ms. Zilkha said. “And every night, I think about the broken lock.”
Raising children is a constant calculus. What age is too young for them to go out alone? When do you begin stunting their independence if you are overprotective?
A Hasidic woman who lived down the block from the slain boy, and whose husband helped with the search, wrestled with that balancing act.
When she sent her two sons to school on Wednesday morning, Leiby was fresh in her mind as she counseled them, “Don’t talk to strangers,” said the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of upsetting her neighbors. But, she said, “I don’t want to scare him too much either; I want him to like his life.” On the other hand, she said, when parents are overprotective, “kids feel love that way too.”
Heinous crimes against children are nothing new in the life of the city, as numerous writers have known. In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a rapist tries to attack the main character on the verge of her 14th birthday.
Part of what made the Patz case so agonizing was that the blond, blue-eyed, 50-pound boy disappeared without a trace, giving rise to missing children campaigns, like photographs on milk cartons. (Although no one has been charged, the lead suspect in the Patz case is serving a prison sentence for child molestation in Pennsylvania.) New York City’s murder rate was headed toward a record high of 1,733 in 1979, and kept climbing, feeding a sense that the city was a place where children should not walk alone. Now it has reached historic lows. Yet the security that parents feel is always tempered by unease. No parents want their child to be that statistic.
But, said Lenore Skenazy, who has championed letting children navigate the city on their own in her book, “Free-Range Kids,” “the chances of being that one are so small it’s almost something you cannot prepare for or defend against.”
“The Etan Patz case was such a shocker,” Ms. Skenazy said. “This one I think will reverberate the same way.” But she has no regrets, she said, that she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone.
“It’s still hard to remember that Etan Patz was 32 years ago,” she said, “and we haven’t, thank God, had anything like that in our city for an entire generation of children going to school and playing in parks and waiting at bus stops and coming home — and having their own children.”