Stranger Danger

The horrible story of Leiby Kletzky, a lost Brooklyn boy walking home from day camp who was killed earlier this week is just so awful and depressing, and I am just thinking about his poor family.  But as a parent myself to a precocious little girl it has me wondering what am I going to do? How am I going to teach my daughter not to walk away with a stranger?

It’s just so hard to believe that this little boy wasn’t abducted, he just asked for help from the wrong person.

This made me think back on something scary that happened to me when I was 6 years old.  First off, I grew up in the country and yes, my mom had talked to me about strangers. Probably because  I grew up in the country and wasn’t flooded with strange faces,  I think I was indeed more afraid and aware when someone was a stranger. I can remember  being fearful of my step mom because she said she had been to France.

Living in a big city like New York, I think about how many people and situations our children are exposed to, which is both good and bad.  At the playground, in elevators, on the street in cabs, etc, we (as parents) are always talking to strangers and so are our children.

One day long ago in a small city near our tiny town my brother was playing soccer at an elementary school, one that was, at the time unknown to me. It was a cold, foggy Saturday morning and my mom was sitting in the car with some other soccer moms chatting and laughing, so I guess she let me out to play — right in front of them in a playground. Sure, I played for a few minutes, but kids get bored and soon I had wandered off toward the school buildings, probably excited that I would soon be old enough to go to real school myself.

Before long I was lost and because of the fog, couldn’t remember the way back.
Out of the blue, a man appeared.  He asked me if I was lost. I was.
He said that he was a teacher and that he would show me the way back.
He held my hand.
As soon as he held my hand, I realized I had made an error. I was immediately uncomfortable and I had a feeling that he wasn’t a teacher.
We walked by a classroom and he pointed to it through the window and told me that this was his room and that he studies little girls bodies. I was very scared, and knew I was in trouble. I also knew that he wasn’t taking me back to where my mom’s car was. But I didn’t panic. I didn’t scream. I acted as normal as possible and actually continued chatting with him.
But I started thinking of how I was going to get away. I was looking around for where I could run, where anyone was. Where I could see people, hear people.
He took me to the back of one of the buildings and asked me to put my hands up against the wall, which I did. Then he asked me if I could take my clothes off.
I told him that I couldn’t easily do that because I had all my ballet clothes on underneath my clothes and I even showed him (I was wearing a pink ballet outfit with tights, all underneath my clothes) . He was not pushy. He calmly asked me if I would  take my pants off. I had the same response about the ballet costume and showed him again.
Then I heard voices, laughter. I looked to my left and I could see the other playground and that there was a girl was on a swing. From where I was standing, I could just catch sight of her when she’d swing to the back, because half the swing could been seen from behind the buildings where we were standing. This was not too far from us, maybe only one building away, and I realized that I was not completely alone and I needed to do something, anything.
So I pretended that I knew her. I yelled “Suzi!” Of course I didn’t know her or her name. I said to the man, “there’s my friend.”
So he said that I could go. And I ran over to the other playground. I waited until I felt safer and then walked along the sidewalk down to the other end where my mom was parked. I told my mom and her friends what had just happened and she drove me immediately to the police department where I gave an account of the story and a description of the man. They later caught him. He was a repeat pedophile who had molested other girls.

I realize that I was incredibly lucky and I learned a valuable lesson that day. I was a very independent, gregarious child and apparently before the age of 6, I used to get lost and walk away with anyone, despite what my mother had told me about strangers. When I was only one my parents lost me at the beach one day,  and turned to see my floating away in some wave. I was saved by a woman walking by who happened to see me.

This man could have taken me into the woods that were directly behind the school without a fence, or to a more private place. He could have been more forceful. This could have gone a completely different way, and I realize that I am lucky to be alive to tell the story.

One thing that struck me from my memory of this event is how easily I got confused and lost. Another is that I did have an awareness that this man was a stranger and I knew something was off right away, and I started looking for exits/strategies.
Outside of talking to our kids about “not going away with a stranger” maybe we need to talk to them about what to do if they become lost. What to do if they get in a bad situation. It’s easy to see how a lost child would reach out to someone who looks like a safe adult.  That’s what happened to me, and that’s what happened to this little boy from Brooklyn. Don’t forget, it’s very scary to be/feel lost to a small child. And there may not be a police man around.

My daughter is too little to talk to her about this yet, but yes, I am very scared. She is precocious and already runs away from me. She will be a handful when it comes to wanting her independence.  Sigh.

I plan to have this discussion with her as soon as I think she can understand.

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