08/11/2011 04:43 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

What We Say to Our Kids - and What They Hear

By Veronica Rhodes

In the wake of the horrifying murder of Leiby Kletzky last month, I asked just about every parent I know if they were talking to their kids about it. My older daughter and most of her friends are 8 years old, as Leiby was, and like Leiby they're starting to push for more independence. Should I be honest with Ann about why I won't let her walk the two blocks to a friend's house alone? Were other parents telling their kids why they're pulling back on the reins a bit?

Almost universally the answer was no, that the circumstances of his death were too grisly, too scary, too world-shattering to talk about with a child.

My partner Em and I agree, for the most part, so like the other parents we haven't told our kids what happened. In the blissful self-absorption that is childhood in summer, neither of them seems to have heard about it on their own. We don't let them see TV news in our house, ever, and I don't think NPR penetrates their consciousness.

Also like the other parents, we're brushing up on those "stranger danger" lessons again with both girls. But the conversations we've had have revealed to me a large gap between what we parents are saying and what our children are hearing. For example, we've long told both of our children not to speak to strangers. Recently, Em asked our five-year-old what she would do if a stranger came up and talked to her.

"I'd ask his name," Mary replied, in a tone that suggested her mom is just a little dense.

To a child that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Ask a stranger his name, and he's no longer a stranger, ergo you can talk to him. It was an eye-opening moment for us.

Of course, this is the child who's been told about a thousand times to look both ways before crossing the street. She's several years away from being allowed to cross on her own, of course, but lately we've been letting her lead the way, practicing for that day when she'll expand her horizons beyond our block. She recently stepped off the curb, looked both ways, and then proceeded to step into the street -- right into the path of an oncoming car.

I can't even remember which of us yanked her back with a shriek, but she was as indignant as we were appalled. She had no idea why we were so upset with her.

"But I looked both ways!" she protested. I guess we'd never mentioned what we took for granted: After you look both ways, stop if a car is coming!

That's when I realized what we'd been doing wrong -- we deliver short, easy messages that we think they understand, but they don't. Kids are literal beings, and if we don't give them context to what we're saying they don't have the capacity to fill it in on their own. And if we can't or won't create that context using the grisly truth, what are we to do?

Ann asked again recently about walking over to her friend's house. I reminded her that there were times when kids needed grown-ups around, even if they didn't want them around. What if you got confused or lost? I asked her. What if a dog were running around loose? What if there were some big kids around who wanted to tease you or bother you? What if there were a stranger there who wanted to talk to you? Weren't all of these examples of times when she'd want an adult handy to help her out? Thankfully, she agreed.

So I told her we'd take it in stages, that maybe at first I would walk with her to the corner and wait there until I saw her go into her friend's house. After that maybe I'd watch her walk to the corner on her own, if I were sure her friend's mom were watching her from there. And eventually, I said, she'd be able to go on her own.

I didn't tell her that "eventually" meant "when you're in college." Or at least until I'm completely sure that she's heard the full message we're trying to deliver.

Veronica Rhodes is the pseudonym of a New York writer, editor, and gay adoptive mom of two girls. Read her blog on Red Room.