5 Questions For ...
Are helicopter parents doing more harm than good? The author of a buzzy new book explores this question after she was plunged into a legal nightmare when she left her four-year-old alone in a car for a few minutes.
One morning while staying at her parents’ house outside Richmond, Virginia, Kim Brooks was anxious about flying home to Chicago with two children under the age of 4. Her strategy for the flight was to let Felix, 4, play with an iPad while she changed, fed and entertained her infant daughter. One problem: Felix’s headphones were missing.
She put Felix into his car seat and drove her mom’s minivan to the local Target. When they arrived at the parking lot, Felix was engaged with a video game and didn’t want to leave the car. He started to make a scene and so Brooks made a split-second decision. “He just wanted to play his little game for a few minutes. Why did I have to drag him inside?” she explains. “It was cool outside, hardly 50 degrees. The parking lot was safe. There were four or five cars around and a couple of middle-aged women in festive sweaters unloading their carts ... I could lock the doors, crack the windows. If anyone tried the handle the alarm would sound.”
Brooks ran in and returned to find Felix safe and sound. Mission accomplished, she flew home to Chicago. What Brooks didn’t know, however, was that a stranger had filmed her at the Target parking lot and would go on to send the video to the police. The fallout from this single moment consumed her life for the next several years, and it launched her on a journey to find out why fear often dictates modern parenting choices. Here, she shares some of her discoveries with Le Scoop.
1. What was the moment when your legal problems in Virginia got you thinking about bigger issues, namely, how most middle-class American parents approach parenting?
It was probably when I began to realize that what had happened to me — being charged with a crime for letting my son wait in a cool car for a few minutes — was happening to other women, too. At first, I learned about this through research. Later, after I published an essay on Salon, women began reaching out to me to share their stories. That was when I realized what happened wasn’t a fluke but a trend, and that norms and expectations of parenting behavior had shifted radically over the course of a generation. The more I talked to other mothers who had been arrested, shamed or harassed for what others perceived as bad parenting, the more I began to question the culture surrounding parenthood and child safety.
2. What key moments in recent history changed our approach from free-range parenting to parenting out of fear?
Certainly, the highly publicized abductions and killings of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh in 1979 and 1981 played a role in igniting our national obsession with “stranger danger” and the idea that any unsupervised child in a public space is a child at risk. These fears intensified over the course of a decade and merged with a wider moral panic surrounding childhood safety and child predators. More recently, Gene Weingarten wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for The Washington Post about the circumstances surrounding hot-car deaths and children who die of hyperthermia when accidentally forgotten in cars. His work explores how these tragedies unfold and how the parents involved – who are nearly always good parents who simply forgot the child was in the car – are criminalized and stigmatized. Unfortunately, there’s been a conflation of these accidents with incidents like mine, in which a child is allowed to wait in safe conditions. People have largely stopped using common sense and instead assume that any child waiting in a car – any child alone in public – constitutes an emergency.
3. What are the downsides of parenting out of fear for kids and parents?
The issue for me is not that parents are afraid or anxious or that they worry about their children; I’m a parent and I do all those things, too. Fear is a feeling, and as a feeling, it’s neither wrong nor right. The problem is that instead of rationally looking at independence for children and weighing the risks and benefits, we’ve begun making decisions about what children can and can’t do based on fear instead of facts. The downside for parents is that unless you are extremely wealthy and can pay a professional to help keep adult eyes on your child around-the-clock, it is very difficult and maybe impossible to live a full, balanced life while watching and supervising children every second. It’s hard to meet today’s standards of “good” parenting and still be a good friend, a good employee, a good sibling, a good member of your community. Parenthood becomes all-consuming.
“Part of becoming a person, a full human being, is learning to do things on your own … We’re not really giving kids the space or the community support to do any of that.”
The cost for children is similar, in that the way we’re treating them robs them of a part of their humanity. Part of becoming a person, a full human being, is learning to do things on your own: be in the world on your own, take certain risks, make mistakes, learn from them and experience yourself as a unique and autonomous human being. We’re not really giving kids the space or the community support to do any of that.
4. What’s the connection between women entering the workforce in greater numbers and what you dub the “Age of Fear”?
You only have to look at the lack of social structures and policies that support families in America to know that we are still deeply ambivalent about mothers working. We give lip service to the idea that mothers can work if they choose, as long as, of course, they can find someone else to keep their kids safe, which means finding someone to watch and supervise them constantly. The average cost of daycare for an infant in America is $17,000 per year. The average cost for a four-year-old is $14,000 per year. Given these economic and societal restraints, a lot of women will simply opt out. I don’t think that’s coincidental.
5. If a friend came to you and asked for some baby steps to help her stop parenting out of fear and be more free-range, what are a few suggestions you’d give?
I hesitate to give how-to parenting advice because children are unique (just like people!), and I think it’s impossible to generalize. Independent activities that are safe or appropriate for one child might not be safe or appropriate for another. First and foremost, I’d encourage them to read children’s and adult books that depict past norms of child behavior in America or present-day norms in other countries. My son came to me one day and told me he wanted to walk to a friend’s house on his own because he’d read in a book that kids can do this. I found this so poignant. It’s easy to fall victim to a mass amnesia in which we assume the way we’re doing things now is the way they’ve always been done or the way they have to be done. Reading can expand our notions of what is normal and safe. And if you don’t have time to read, just talk to people. Ask people older than you what kinds of things they did on their own as children. And then ask yourself if your own children might deserve the same kinds of freedom.
Kim Brooks is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her essays and stories have appeared in New York Magazine, The Cut, Chicago Magazine, Salon, Lenny-Letter and elsewhere. Her novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016. She lives in Chicago.