Like many Brooklyn parents, I was shocked and deeply saddened by the recent abduction and murder of Leiby Kletzky, an eight-year-old boy who had just been given permission to walk 7 blocks by himself in a close-knit neighborhood that is considered one of the safest in New York City.
A disturbing subset of the comments on a New York Times article about the tragedy threatened to devolve into blamefest. What were the parents thinking to let such a small child out alone on the city streets? On the other hand, parents who hover over their children in a vain attempt to protect them from any possible danger are crippling them for life. And so on.
In addition to hoping the bereaved parents don't read this nonsense (or hear the same sentiments from "concerned" friends and neighbors), I have been thinking about why we feel compelled to do this to each other--to kick our fellow parents when they are most vulnerable; to assume -- and announce -- that the way we would (or believe we would) respond to a challenge is the only legitimate way, and those who behave differently need to be sorted out.
For one thing, there is what psychologists call the "belief in a just world." We look for reasons, however irrelevant, why unfortunate people deserve their misfortune, and why we would never be caught in the same predicament. This helps us feel safer in unpredictable and frightening situations, such as parenthood.
Also, in contrast to the way many of our grandparents lived, most of us don't live in tight-knit communities with shared and articulated values. (Leiby, of course, did live in such a community, which may have induced a false sense of safety, but that is another column.) Thus, what seems like common sense to us--because that is how we were raised, and we have never questioned the rightness of certain aspects of our upbringing -- may seem criminally irresponsible, or bizarrely overprotective, to our neighbor.
Finally, it seems to me that parents just can't win. Some parents are truly neglectful or abusive, and in need of intervention. Others are neurotically overprotective, and could benefit from therapy. Most of us just love our kids, want to do the best for them, and constantly seek that elusive balance between age-appropriate protectiveness and nurturing independence. This would be easier if we could try to empathize with, listen to, and learn from each other.