Raising Kids In An 'Age Of Fear' Results In Impossible Choices For Parents

Aug 27, 2018
Originally published on August 28, 2018 8:04 am

In March 2011, Kim Brooks did something that many parents have either done or thought about doing — and it led to a warrant being issued for her arrest. Brooks was rushing to get herself and her two kids to the airport to catch a flight. As she pulled into the Target parking lot to run one last errand, her 4-year-old asked if he could wait in the car. It was a cool day, and so she cracked the windows, child-locked the doors, and ran inside.

"It wasn't something I had done before," Brooks says, but "I had all these memories from my own childhood of waiting in the car for a couple minutes while my parents ran errands."

She returned promptly to her son — still happily playing on an iPad — but Brooks later learned that a bystander had filmed her leaving the car, and sent that recording to the police. She was charged with "contributing to the delinquency of a minor."

The ordeal prompted Brooks to write Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, in which she grapples with the expectation that children must be under adult supervision at all times.

"There's now the expectation that to be a good parent in this country you have to have your eyes on your children every second — or you have to pay another adult to have eyes on your children every second," Brooks says. "The consequences are that either one of the parents gives up their work ... or you pay someone else ... which is harder and harder."

Brooks says that in a country where the cost of childcare can be prohibitive, parents are faced with impossible choices.

"I was trying to understand how it was possible that something I had grown up doing so often — waiting in a car in a safe parking lot — how this had become a crime," she says.


Interview Highlights

On whether it's against the law to leave a child in a car

There is no specific law in Virginia — or in a lot of states. So, what happens is that it's left up to the discretion of the officer. ... There have been people who've done similar things who are charged with felonies ... child endangerment or child neglect. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is actually a much lesser crime — it was a misdemeanor. ... The defense that we went with was that this was a temporary lapse in judgment — that I was not a neglectful mother; that there was no history of neglect.

At one point I said to my lawyer: ... I don't really know that I've done something wrong here. I don't understand why I'm being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I don't really see how I've committed a crime.

On how expectations around adult supervision changed relatively quickly — and in the not-so-distant past

I think a lot of this began in the '80s with a lot of very publicized cases of child abduction. ... I learned about something called "the availability heuristic" ... when we are trying to assess how risky something is we don't think about statistics. We often don't think about risks rationally. We think about how quickly we can recall an example of something. ... Suddenly it was much easier to recall these examples of child abduction or, much later on, hot car deaths. Suddenly things that had never been thought of as risks or dangers seemed much more dangerous.

On what it means to be a "good parent"

I think that the expectation on parents has changed from giving your children shelter, and love, and support, and guidance, to this idea that observation and structure and sort of watching them all the time — that that's what a good parent does. And if a parent has any time left over to themselves — especially a mother — she must be doing something wrong. ... I think that that's hurtful not only to parents, but for children as well.

On what the consequences are for children

I think that the easiest way to answer that is to think, well, what would the consequences be for adults? What would the consequences be for you or for me if suddenly we had no freedom? ... [If] we couldn't be in public spaces on our own; We had no time to ourselves — no unsupervised time.

I think that what you'd see is what we're seeing with children — which is high rates of depression, anxiety, obesity. ... We're really doing children a disservice when we underestimate what they're capable of.

On whether she's angry at the person who reported her to the police

I want to stress that I think fear is natural. We often we see these terrible stories on the news — we hear about kids who die in cars, who are abducted ... and it's heart-wrenching when we we hear these stories. So, you know, I understand being afraid both as a bystander and as a parent.

I don't think that fear is the problem. I think the problem is that we often don't know what to do with our fear. We don't know how to acknowledge it for what it is — which is a feeling which might be giving us some information about the world, but it's also giving us information about ourselves.

On how she is no longer an "uncritical consumer of anxiety"

I still struggle with fear and with anxiety as a parent. But I think that the place I've gotten to is that ... I allow myself to feel fear without always capitulating to it. ... You don't have to live your life by fear.

Marc Rivers and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This next story is about one of those split-second, seat-of-the-pants decisions you make that turns out to have profound consequences for your life. Our co-host Mary Louise Kelly picks it up from here.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: This is the story of Kim Brooks. She was in a rush trying to get her two young kids packed and to the airport to catch a flight. They'd been visiting her parents in Virginia. Brooks needed to run a last-minute errand - buy some headphones for her 4-year-old son so he'd be entertained on the flight. So she strapped him in the car and headed to Target. What happened next is the subject of her new book "Small Animals: Parenthood In The Age Of Fear."

KIM BROOKS: He asked if he could wait in the car. He was playing with my mom's iPad. And I said OK.

KELLY: She'd never left her son unattended in a car. But it was a cool day. She had child locks on the car doors. And it was a nice neighborhood.

BROOKS: You know, I had all these memories from my own childhood of waiting in the car for a couple minutes while my parents ran errands.

KELLY: A few minutes later, she was back in the car, and everything was fine. Except everything wasn't fine. When I spoke with Kim Brooks, I asked her to pick up the story of what happened when she got off the plane back home.

BROOKS: It was only when I returned to Chicago did I realize apparently someone had seen me go into the store, leave my son when I went in, had recorded me doing this on their phone, had contacted the police, who had shown up then after I had already left.

KELLY: So more than a year after the incident in the parking lot, your phone rings. And it's a police officer calling to say, are you aware, Mrs. Brooks, that there's a warrant outstanding for your arrest in the state of Virginia? Walk me through that moment.

BROOKS: I just was so terrified and shocked. I actually sat down on the sidewalk where I was walking. I just couldn't believe that it was happening.

KELLY: And you ended up having to go fly back to Virginia, show up in court, meet a judge and try to persuade them - what? What was your defense?

BROOKS: The defense that we went with was that this was a temporary lapse in judgment, that, you know, I was not a neglectful mother, that there was no history of neglect. You know, and at one point I said to my lawyer as I started to think more about what was happening and to read about other stories and to talk to parenting rights advocates - I said to him, I don't really know that I've done something wrong here. You know, I don't understand why I'm being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I don't really see how I've committed a crime.

KELLY: I was going to ask. Is it against the law in Virginia to leave a kid in the car for five minutes?

BROOKS: There's no specific law in Virginia or in a lot of states. It's left up to the discretion of the officer or for anyone who sees what's happened. So there have been people in similar - who've done similar things who are charged with felonies, who are charged with child endangerment or child neglect.

KELLY: It must have been like a slow-motion nightmare trying to go about your daily life and being a mom to your kids as all of this is constantly in your - in the back of your mind.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was very frightening and anxiety-producing largely because while it was happening, I was trying to make sense of it. You know, I was trying to understand how it was possible that something I had grown up doing so often - waiting in a car in a safe parking lot - how this had become a crime.

KELLY: I found myself thinking along similar lines. I mean, I also remember being a kid in the '70s, in the '80s and, yeah, being left in a car alone by myself as my parents ran an errand, riding around without a seatbelt, for that matter, riding my bike without a helmet in sight. I mean, all of us did all kinds of things that must be far more risky than leaving a child sitting in a car for five minutes. What - as you went about investigating this for the book, what did you put your finger on in terms of how things have changed so quickly in a generation?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, well, I think there are a few different things that I learned about in the course of writing the book. You know, one is that I think a lot of this began in the '80s with a lot of very publicized cases of child abduction. There was the Adam Walsh case and the Etan Patz case. And I learned about something called the availability heuristic, which is a psychological term. And what it means is that when we are trying to assess how risky something is, you know, we don't think about statistics. We often don't think about risks rationally. We think about how quickly we can recall an example of something.

So what happened is, you know, suddenly it was much easier to recall these examples of child abduction or much later on hot car deaths. So suddenly things that had never been thought of as risks or dangers seemed much more dangerous than they were. That's one thing that I discovered.

KELLY: And are they actually dangerous?

BROOKS: Well, you know, the most dangerous thing that I did that day I later learned was actually put my son in the car and drive anyplace with him.

KELLY: The risk of an automobile accident, you're saying, is higher than the risk that something would have happened to him in that parking lot.

BROOKS: Yeah, exactly, which is not something that, you know, we're conscious of in our day-to-day lives. But what I realized is that a lot of the things that seem dangerous to people, that feel dangerous are not actually statistically significant risks.

KELLY: What are the consequences for children of this era we live in where it is unacceptable, possibly even seen as criminal to leave a kid alone for a few minutes?

BROOKS: Well, I think that the easiest way to answer that is to think, what would the consequences be for adults? You know, what would the consequences be for you or for me if suddenly we had no freedom, we couldn't be in public spaces on our own, no unsupervised time? What you'd see is what we're seeing in children, which is high rates of depression, anxiety, obesity. You know, I think that we're really doing children a disservice when we underestimate what they're capable of.

KELLY: Your story has a happy ending. Your son is fine, was always fine. You served community service. And this incident is now behind you. But do you have empathy for people who come at this from a really different direction? Or let me ask it more personally.

BROOKS: Sure.

KELLY: Do you have empathy for the person who shot that cellphone video of you that day in the parking lot?

BROOKS: Yeah. You know, I do. I mean, I get asked that a lot. People say, like, are you angry at that person or, you know, what would you say to them? I mean, I want to stress that I understand being afraid both as a bystander and as a parent. I don't think that fear is the problem. I think the problem is that we often don't know what to do with our fear. We don't know how to acknowledge it for what it is, which is a feeling which might be giving us some information about the world, but it's also giving us information about ourselves.

But I think that the place I've gotten to is that I think it's OK. I allow myself to feel fear without always capitulating to it. You know, I kind of see it for what it is, you know, that you can have that feeling. You can be afraid of something. You can have a negative fantasy. And you can say, there's fear. You know, there it is. But that doesn't - you don't have to capitulate to it. You don't have to live your life by fear.

KELLY: That's Kim Brooks. Her book is titled "Small Animals: Parenthood In The Age Of Fear." Kim Brooks, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.