A couple of days ago, a little boy (roughly the same age and size as my son) disappeared. The worst happened, and his body was found late last night. There are already some suspects in custody, so some small manner of justice may be exerted.
In these types of stories, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback. However, I can tell you first hand that raising a child in the city is an extreme challenge. Simple things that non-apartment-dwelling families take for granted, such as a backyard swing set or—simpler still—a backyard, few parents in the city have.
Did I mention my rent was just raised 25 percent? This is not a non-sequitor. In fact, I live in one of the safest and most family-friendly places in New York City. We have our own private police, which is approximately nine times the police presence in greater Manhattan. We rarely have homeless, and the only “strangers” are being led around by a chubby man in Bermuda shorts wielding a bicycle flag (i.e. they’re tourists). This is not to say that nothing bad could happen here; we’ve had high school gang types show up and beat a person; people have attempted suicide (some succeed) just outside my window (i.e. next to the Hudson). However, all in all, I pay a premium to live in a safe neighborhood where we know every other person and where my son can go out to play with his friends. It has that old-time, small-town feel where parents actually are emboldened to discipline other people’s kids (in the best sense).
However, I have yet to allow my son to walk the four blocks to school by himself. The little boy who perished this week had begged his parents to let him walk home from day camp. They agreed to meet him half way. He never got there. It appears that someone from his community may be involved; not that the boy necessarily knew the people involved but that he was comfortable enough to follow one of them.
“Stranger danger” is a relatively easy concept to relate to a child. This is why very few abductions are committed by genuine strangers; it’s usually a casual acquaintance or someone who lives nearby and targets a kid. In NYC, I always think the law of numbers bears well for my kids. For example, my daughter walks/subways/cabs all over the city. I don’t worry about her because it’s not the type of place where if you kick up a fuss someone won’t take notice. However, a little boy willingly walking alongside a man who is from his community would never draw attention. No one would intervene.
Which brings me back to world travel: How do I keep my son safe from harm? How do I teach him to be “smart”? How do I allow him autonomy (very necessary, especially if you ever want the boy to become a man), while ensuring he does not succumb to harm? The answer is that I really can’t. I can only raise my son (as I have my daughter) to know right from wrong and to honor the values of our family. Beyond that, as a parent I must have faith that he will make the right choices and not get into trouble. However, when something heinous does occur, that faith can be sorely tested. It’s the hardest thing any parent ever faces.