The abduction and killing of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old boy from Brooklyn, New York, hit a little close to home for me.
In addition to having children that are the same age, I actually grew up very close to the neighborhood where Leiby went to school. And I probably started to walk 5 or 6 blocks to my bus stop when I was about 8 or 9-years-old, and my older brother couldn't walk with me anymore because he was going to a different school.
When a child is murdered like this, it brings up the old debate of stranger-danger, at what age kids should be allowed more freedom to do things on their own, and if some parents go too far because of fear, and never let their kids outside.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their report on "The Pediatrician's Role in the Prevention of Missing Children," states that efforts to prevent missing children need to balance "safeguarding children while avoiding generating fear." The report also states that "because abductions are rarely conducted by strangers, even in nonfamily abductions, teaching children not to talk to strangers frightens them without any proven benefit."
Can you talk to kids about strangers without frightening them? We talk to kids about wearing a helmet when they ride their bike and it doesn't keep them from getting on a bicycle.
The AAP also advises that pediatricians "help parents and children put the risk of becoming missing in perspective."
That's definitely important. To make a decision about letting your kids do things on your own, you should have good information. While you don't want to create fear or overstate any risks of stranger abductions, that does also mean not minimizing the danger.
For example, Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, and an advocate for parents being less overprotective of their kids, yesterday stated that "a stranger abduction like Leiby's is rarer than death-by-lightning."
Is that true? Rarer than death-by-lightning?
In 1999, a study found that there were 115 stereotypical kidnappings, including 81 kidnappings that were by a total stranger and 34 that were by a slight acquaintance. Forty percent of the kids in those stereotypical kidnappings were killed. Statistics often cited since then report that about 50 children each year are murdered in stranger abductions each year.
Last year, six children who were less than 18-years-old were struck and killed by lightning. There were 29 total lightning strike fatalities in the United States. Both numbers are much less than the number of kids who are abducted and killed by strangers each year.
A report in the Chicago Tribune last year found that there were over 400 attempted stranger abductions of children from 2008 to 2010. While that isn't something to panic over, they certainly aren't rare events.
In her book, Lenore Skenazy also uses the statistic that there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of your child being abducted and murdered by a stranger.
I'm guessing that statistic isn't really true either. There are 74 million children living in the United States, but they don't all have the same risk of getting abducted and murdered by a stranger. Saying that there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of being abducted and murdered by a stranger because there are 50 incidents among 74 million children is like calculating a child's risk of getting hurt playing football and using all children, and not just those who play football in your calculation. Not all children are at the same risk of being abducted by strangers.
Is 50 murders a year rare? Maybe. But to put in perspective - fewer children between the ages of 1 and 18 years die each year from meningitis.
All of this doesn't mean that you have to overestimate the risk and lock your kids in your house. But it also doesn't mean that you have to go to the other extreme and let people label you a helicopter parent because you want to watch your kids play at the park or don't feel comfortable simply dropping them off at the mall.
Like most things, decisions on when to let your kids play outside alone, walk to the store, or stay home alone, should be made on an individual basis. Trust your instincts and let your kids have as much freedom as you think they are ready for.
As stranger-danger has gotten out of favor, mostly because kids aren't very good at recognizing who strangers are, it is important to teach kids about personal safety. A well thought out safety plan in situations when you might get separated from your kids seems smarter than simply ditching stranger-danger warnings. Such a plan would making sure your kids have some kind of ID, with information on how to contact you, having a current picture of your child, a designated meeting place if you become separated, and a discussion of safe places that your kids might go if they becomes lost or feel threatened, whether it is by a stranger or someone they know.
It isn't very common for kids to get killed by lightning, but that doesn't mean that we encourage them to go outside and play during thunderstorms...
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National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Finding a Lost Child
Strangers Aren't the Only Dangers
Stranger Danger: The Gruesome Murder of a NYC Boy Shocks Neighbors, Shakes Parents