Child Tragedies: Why Blame The Victims?

alg leiby kletzky boy 300x182 8 Year Old Boy Found Dismembered, First Time Allowed To Walk Home AloneI can’t stop thinking about Leiby Kletzky. If you’ve been fortunate enough to miss last week’s horrendous news, he’s the 8 year old who was abducted and murdered in Brooklyn. Not just murdered, but dismembered in his killer’s kitchen. The abduction  occurred while Kletzky was wandering alone through his neighborhood, a freedom he had reluctantly been granted after begging to be allowed to walk home from day camp by himself. This is the part of the story that twists parents’ guts. I relate to this child’s desire for autonomy, to his mother’s desire to trust him.  Now that the worst has happened, these impulses are seen as clearly, horribly wrong.  “That poor mother,” people say, pointing not just at her grief, but her guilt.

When something happens to a child, especially something this monumentally gruesome, people are at a loss. They want to know why.  Since there is no answer to this question, they look for the next best thing: HOW? This tragedy has brought up a debate among parents about how loose we hold the reins on our children. But that question brings up others. Are we suggesting that this tragedy was their fault? Leiby Kletzky’s parents may have made a choice some see as questionable, but their choice was not unconsidered.  They debated, discussed, even practiced the walk with their son.  8 is quite young to walk alone in a city, but in a neighborhood police describe as a “zero crime area” should it really be too young?

Is allowing your child out onto the street alone “asking for it”?

On a question originally intended for Free-Range Parent Lenore Skenazy’s blog, but re-routed to his own site. Cul-De-Sac Hero contrasts our response to child abductions with the way we look at rape victims:

What astounds me, is that any suggestions to women that they should moderate their behaviour to help them reduce the risk of becoming victims of rape – such as dressing appropriately for the situation, avoiding dark alleys and not drinking too much at parties – is called “victim blaming” and hateful and results in marches and protests.

However, telling parents that their behaviour is the only reason for childhood abductions and murders is perfectly ok. Why do some victims completely bear responsibility for the criminal acts performed against them, while others are completely free of it?”

The author wonders whether this difference is related to the lack of a “childrenism” movement equivalent to feminism, arguing that child advocacy does not always have children’s interests in mind.  These crimes are not exactly parallel, and this comparison brings up more issues than I can manage in less than a dissertation. But here’s one that screams out: We hold parents responsible for just about everything that happens with their children.  Why should we not hold them responsible for allowing them to fall prey to predators? When a child is murdered, parents are effectively the living victims. But we also see them as enablers for failing to protect their children, or teach them to protect themselves.

Ultimately, the reason I think we hold parents responsible when something awful happens is that it gives us a sense of control.    When we look to the details surrounding a tragedy, what we really want to do is find out how to differentiate ourselves: I’m different. I’m smarter. This happened because the child’s mother made a bad choice, because he lives in a big city, because he wasn’t educated properly. Anything but the truth, which is that we are all vulnerable.

Being a parent is about protecting your child, but it’s also about allowing the child to stretch, learn and grow. The opportunities for growth are also, sadly, opportunities for  children to get hurt, or worse.  After a tragedy, we always want to turn back the clock and do things differently. It may not be the easiest way to process this, but I think we should resist the urge to suggest that the parents could have prevented this horror, and put the blame where it belongs: on the psychopath who committed the crime.

It’s not easy being a parent: “I didn’t count on motherhood being so hard.”

Article Posted 5 years Ago
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