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Erin Mantz Headshot

I Want to Talk to My Kids About Etan Patz -- But I Don't Know How

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I want to talk to my kids about the Etan Patz case. But I don't know how.

My boys are now 7 and 11, and since they were toddlers, I have talked to them about not only "stranger danger" but potential dangers of being taken by an adult they know. Now that news is exploding about the arrest in the Etan Patz missing child case, with coverage on CNN and everywhere, keeping my kids safe is top of mind. I'm also wondering if they'll hear about it.

Every few months, as I give them more independence to ride their bikes out front or even walk the one-and-a-half blocks to school, I give them tips. If someone grabs you, scream "I don't know you -- someone help me," I tell them. "Don't scream 'Let go!' or people may just assume you're fighting with a parent and stay out of it."

I give them tests: If what seems like a nice man stops you and says he needs help looking for his lost puppy, what do you do? If someone says they're giving away extra candy in their car, what do you do? If the neighbor asks you to come in for lemonade what do you do? They always pass the tests, and I breathe a momentary sign of relief.

When they were younger, I started up with these discussions determined not to scare them. A few years ago, as I read more and more stories about kids taken from their streets and homes, I somehow crossed the line to this: The heck with not trying to scare them -- maybe fear will get through to them best.

I'm not saying I tell them gory details about kidnappings, or let them watch Nancy Grace dissect cases on TV. I don't tell them how many kids disappeared by someone coming right into their bedrooms, or how obsessed I was with cases like JonBenet Ramsey. Or how I credit an adorable little boy named Adam Walsh with making me cautious in shopping malls the minute my kids could walk. I don't let them see stories about kids discovered in basements or backyards years after they went missing, or how or why their lives are forever changed.

But my little tests have intensified in the past six months. As we moved closer to their school and spring came around, I gave them a little more freedom. And, for my fifth grader, a cell phone and strict instructions.

I have come very close to signing up for Verizon Wireless's Family Locator feature, which would let me track his location right from my computer or phone. I've looked into it online about five times, but always stop short of enrolling, thinking: that's too much.

Yesterday, among the multitude of news stories announcing Etan Patz's killer had been found, I got an email from Verizon Wireless: Try Family Locator one month for free. I still need to talk to my kids. And, deep down, I do know how. But maybe this bit of technology can't hurt.

It seems like yesterday that I was teaching my boys how to play independently without me for five minutes, dumping the blocks in front of them and running in the kitchen to make lunch. Now they are so independent, and it's a whole other set of worries.

As for the Verizon offer -- carefully timed marketing or pure coincidence? I'm not sure, but I think I'm signing up today. Reading Etan's kidnapper lured him with a simple soda, I can't help thinking I can do all the tests with my kids in the world but if push comes to shove, would they go for the Coke?