Skip to main content

Upshot of an atrocity: Irrational fear, misplaced blame

By Lenore Skenazy, Special to CNN
  • Leiby Kletzky, an 8-year-old, was murdered in Brooklyn last week
  • His parents had allowed him to walk home from summer day camp alone
  • Some people say his parents share some blame for his death, says Lenore Skenazy
  • Such finger-pointing is outrageous, akin to blaming the victim, she says

Editor's note: Lenore Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids" and founder of the blog and movement of the same name, which she began after the media jumped on her for letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone.

(CNN) -- When something as terrible and unpredictable as Leiby Kletzky's slaying happens, it's natural to look for someone to blame. But some people are pointing fingers not just at the accused killer, Levi Aron. They are actually blaming the boy's parents, because he was abducted while walking home from day camp, on July 11. People posting comments online say the Kletzkys should have "known better" than to let their 8-year-old son walk a few blocks alone in Brooklyn.

I disagree. Furthermore, blaming the parent strikes me as a new and evil pastime.

I don't blame the Kletzkys, who have suffered enough from the sudden loss of their son, because this kind of crime is so rare that no one could have predicted it. It reminds me of last year when a tree branch fell in Central Park, killing a baby in its mother's arms. Should we blame the mother for having stood under a tree? How could she have predicted that tragedy? What were the chances?

The same goes for murder by a stranger. I can understand people being shocked and upset, as I was, by such an awful and senseless crime. But let's keep some perspective.

In a country of roughly 60 million children age 15 or younger, about 50 each year are killed by strangers. To live your life trying to avoid the those odds would mean also never taking the stairs, because the odds are higher of dying of a fall, and never stepping outside, because the odds are much higher of getting hit by lightning. In fact, the only safe thing to do would be to batten the hatches and stay inside.

The reason we blame the parents in this case is the same reason we used to blame rape victims. Remember? We'd say, "Oh, she was wearing a short skirt!" as if the woman, not the rapist, were to blame. We did this because it made us feel safer: If we could find some difference between her behavior and our own, it would assure us that we were safe and she was asking for it.

Then gradually it dawned on us that no one asks to get raped. And that it is more than unfair, it is disgusting to blame the victim of a crime.

So we stopped doing that where rape is concerned, but then started doing it whenever a child is hurt. "Oh, she wasn't watching him close enough," "They shouldn't have let her go to the store," "I would never do..." whatever activity preceded the murder, even if it is almost always a safe activity, like letting a child wait for the school bus.

It is getting to the point where any parents giving their kids any freedom whatsoever must brace for a chorus of blame, even if nothing goes wrong: "Why are you taking that chance?"

But where there's life, there's chance. Kids are here to learn and grow and do. The idea that there's no trade-off when we lock them inside is wrong. Bubble-wrapped kids get the message that the world is a horror movie, that they are never safe unless their parents are right there to save them. And they don't get the chance to develop street smarts, confidence, joy.

They do, however, get a lot of chance to sit in front of a screen.

A horrific and tragic act like the murder of a child always throws us for a loop. But crime is down since the 1970s, '80s and '90s, when most of us parents were growing up -- and playing outside. Let's teach our kids how to cross the street, and that they can never go off with strangers. And then, let's let them out again.

A few days ago, Leiby Kletzky's heartbroken parents released a statement. They encouraged the world to remember him by doing good deeds for one another -- not by distrusting all strangers. They also said: "We pray that none of you should ever have to live through what we did. But if any tragedy is to ever befall any of you, G-d forbid, you should be blessed with a community and public as supportive as ours."

Let's bond with them in their grief, not blame them or any other parents who trust the world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lenore Skenazy.