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

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.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.