The horrific murder and dismemberment of a young boy’s body last week has sent shock waves through the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish Community in Brooklyn, NY. When he was first deemed missing thousands of volunteers combed the area looking for him; his death touched them all and a multitude attended his funeral. The lightness of summer is tainted with collective grief, shock and fear.

Parents will now review and revise our assumptions about the freedom we allow our children. How do we balance the need to keep our children safe yet teach them to become independent, resilient adults? We want our children to develop self-confidence by experiencing and overcoming challenges. We want them to engage in activities that will elicit their strengths and teach them about life. The risks our children take will enlarge their world; at the same time, they will ipso facto put them in danger.

Statistically, children are more vulnerable to molestation and abuse from people they know than from strangers. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the almost 800,000 children under 18 who are reported missing in one year about 200,00 are family abductions while 58,000 are non-family abductions. That’s no comfort, however, when the kidnapping, exploitation or murder occurs to the child of one’s neighbor or friend. As a result, parents are now concerned about letting their children play in their front yards without adult supervision let alone walk down the street.

Parental apprehension regarding safety is exacerbated by general anxiety about their children’s future. In today’s demanding economy parents worry about admission into college while the youngster is still in preschool. The majority of children’s activities is so structured and devoid of free play that a pro-play group called Play for Tomorrow staged a giant “play date” in Central Park last fall to publicize the need for less screen time and more outdoor, unstructured fun. Likewise, the International Walk to School Day (October 5th this year) encourages children to engage in more physical exercise with the slogan, Hike it! Bike it! I like it!

How do we encourage our children to play freely when such liberty could God-forbid cost them their life? Dr. Helene Guldberg in her book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, argues that children shouldn’t grow up naïve to the dangers of the world but neither should they grow up fearing adults. Adults for the most part are helpful and supportive and we’d want our children to turn to an adult when lost or confused. Experts suggest that we teach our children to look for trustworthy strangers such as policemen and firemen, teachers and principals. But uniforms, whether professional or religious, can be donned by anyone; even this symbol is not foolproof. A child still needs to be alert to signs of danger, e.g., an unknown adult who is too friendly, asks the child for help, wants to give the child something, asks the child to disobey the parents or tries to steer the child away from a group or public place.

Similarly, we can establish specific, inviolate rules: Children must ask permission or check in with us before they leave; we must know where they are at all times; and they are not permitted to go with anyone – even a friend of their parents – unless told explicitly to do so beforehand. The National Crime Prevention Council also recommends that we teach our children to trust their instincts and to “No, Go, Yell, Tell.” If they feel scared or uncomfortable, children should say no, run away, yell as loud as they can and tell a trusted adult what happened right away. It’s okay to say no to an adult; safety is more important than manners.

In essence, the home is a microcosm in which parents can foster and develop important life skills such as responsibility, perseverance, self-control, and mastery of interpersonal and social communication. Opening the door to freedom necessitates assessing the capabilities of each child; chronological age is not a reliable marker. Rather, a child’s true developmental age is based on his or her level of mental and emotional maturity. When asked, a parent could easily tell you which child they trust to finish tasks, run errands or watch a younger sibling while the parent takes a nap. One child may be ready for a higher level of privilege while another is not.

Rather than terrify our children with stories of accidents, drowning, kidnappings and bear attacks we can empower them with knowledge of how to cross a street, swim, walk in the city and hike along a mountain path.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Mona Spiegel, PhD, CMC is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified Life Coach. Women turn to her after hearing her lead a workshop, read an article she’s written, or through the recommendations of friends who have experienced the value of her coaching. Dr. Spiegel helps women resolve their problems and tap their inner strengths to realize their goals and dreams. Dr. Spiegel is a member of the American Psychological Association and the International Coach Federation. Learn more about her at www.myfamilycoach.com.