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Recent news reminds us of stranger danger

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The news of Leiby Kletzky’s murder horrified and shocked New Yorkers, especially the close-knit Hasidic community where the 8-year-old boy lived. The tragedy hit local parents particularly hard. Many thought, “What if this was my child?”

On Monday, July 11, Kletzky disappeared while walking alone to meet his mother after camp. Two days later, after a frantic search, police found his dismembered body and the man who allegedly killed him, Levi Aron.

Amid the breaking news, it was only natural for parents to want to hold their children close and never let them go.

While abductions of this kind are extremely rare, this tragic event reminds parents that they do occur. They can happen to any family, at any time, anywhere. As much as parents want to shield their children from this harsh reality, Kletzky’s death proves that too much is never enough when it comes to talking to children about safety with strangers.

Parents can lower their children’s risk of harm by teaching them a few simple lessons:

Define ‘stranger’

Children meet “strangers” every day. They encounter them on the street, in the playground, at the library — and, for the most part, they seem friendly. Parents have the responsibility to teach their children that a stranger is ANYONE who the family does not know well.

Strangers can be young or old, male or female, and any ethnicity or race. They may appear gentle and kind. Regardless, EVERYONE should be considered a stranger until a parent or responsible caregiver says otherwise.

It is also important for parents to help children identify safe strangers in the community — like police officers, firefighters, and teachers. This will help children feel more at ease.

Establish clear rules

Parents know their children better than anyone else. Only they can gauge when their child is ready to take steps toward independence. Regardless of when that is, children need to be aware of family rules and follow them without exception. Children must let their parents know where they are and whom they are with at all times. A child should have his home address and telephone number memorized, along with his parents’ cellphone and work numbers. Teaching children how to dial 911 is one of the most important lessons parents can share. If kids are allowed to walk home from school without parental supervision, they must follow strict guidelines:

• Stay in a group — there is safety in numbers.

• Walk the same, familiar route each day.

• Head straight home without any stops or detours.

• If plans change, call home immediately before leaving school.

Be aware of warning signs

While parents can assure children that most strangers are harmless, they must remind them to never let down their guard. Adults with bad intentions will try anything to trick kids into getting what they want. They may tug on their heartstrings (I lost my puppy), challenge their fears (your mom is hurt; you need to come with me), persuade them with tempting promises (I know where there are awesome video games), or outright lie (your mom is stuck in traffic and asked me to pick you up today). Children who know what to expect will be prepared to deal with any suspicious behavior that comes their way.

Empower children

Children must first recognize inappropriate behavior to feel strong and confident in dealing with it. This comes with repetition. Parents who rehearse different scenarios provide valuable opportunities for their children to practice feeling comfortable with the language and actions necessary to defend themselves.

“No!” is the most powerful word a child can use. If a stranger ignores a child’s refusal, that child must know that it is OK to run, scream, and fight. It is critical that parents give children permission to trust their instincts and act accordingly if they are in a situation that is dangerous or makes them feel uneasy. Parents can also help children by designating safe public places. If children are prepared for danger, they will feel more safe and self-protected.

Kletzky left an important lesson behind. His tragic death is a wake-up call to all parents to be more rigorous about keeping their children safe from strangers. This starts with awareness and education. As children grow older and practice more autonomy, parents need to establish clear, simple rules for them to follow in their journey toward independence. It may save their lives.

Laura Varoscak-DeInnocentiis, MA, is a teacher and freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to Family Publications and has won editorial awards from Parent Publications of America. She lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and is the proud mom of two sons, Henry and Charlie. Visit her webpage (www.examiner.com/parenting-in-new-york/laura-varoscak) for more articles on parenting.

Updated 11:55 am, December 12, 2016
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