Nonfiction: The Criminalization of Parenthood

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SMALL ANIMALS
Parenthood in the Age of Fear
By Kim Brooks
242 pp. Flatiron Books. $26.99.

In March of 2011, Kim Brooks intentionally left her 4-year-old son, Felix, alone in a car. For some readers, this sentence will provoke outrage. Others will read the opening pages of Brooks’s book “Small Animals,” which recount that experience in a parking lot in Virginia, with a rising sense of dread, even though it’s clear early on that Felix was unharmed. Parents who’ve allowed their kids to play outside without checking on them every few minutes, let them walk alone to the store or permitted them any of the countless small freedoms that used to be part of an ordinary American childhood, will sense what’s coming: the police.

Every year, Brooks writes, about 37 American children die in hot cars. It’s a harrowing death, often due to oversight — babies left napping and forgotten, parents interrupted from their usual routines. But on the day that Brooks left her son, it was cool enough for jackets, the windows were open and the car was locked and alarmed. Brooks was rushing to catch a flight with her two young kids; she let Felix stay in the car playing on his iPad while she ran into Target on an errand. She was gone for a few minutes, and in that time Felix was observed by a bystander, who recorded a video of him alone in the back seat and gave it to the authorities.

What, exactly, was the crime? Or, more precisely, what kind of danger was little Felix in? “Small Animals” interrogates how we weigh risk as parents, how we judge one another’s parenting and what the costs might be — not just to parents, but to children, too — of a culture of constant surveillance. Brooks’s book attempts to understand what is so scary about leaving a child alone in a car, when the act of driving that child in that same car is, she contends, far riskier. As she puts it, “a child’s chances of being abducted and murdered are way less than one in a million.” She interviews a cognitive scientist, a sociologist and an occupational therapist, along with other mothers who’ve faced arrest for infractions similar to hers — and makes the case that our fears are based on little more than superstition.

Why are American parents so fearful? Is leaving a child in a car considered riskier than driving him because the boogeyman you can’t see is scarier than dangers you face every day? Is it possible, as Lenore Skenazy, an activist who runs a website called Free-Range Kids, suggests to Brooks, that we are more interested in policing mothers than in protecting children — that our idea of a good parent is someone “‘who watches and manages and meddles and observes ceaselessly,” even when the outcome this yields is no safer?

[ Read Kim Brooks’s op-ed, “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” ]

Brooks didn’t know that a bystander had contacted the police until after her flight landed in Chicago. She found a lawyer, and agreed to go along with his description of her behavior as a temporary “lapse in judgment.” When, nearly a year later, she learned that there was a warrant out in Virginia for her arrest, she flew from Chicago to Virginia to turn herself in. To go to trial, her lawyer implied, could mean risking custody of her kids. In exchange for agreeing to perform community service and take parenting classes, the prosecutor dropped the charge — “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” — against her.

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The bystander’s instinct — to err on the side of caution, to call the police when in doubt about a child’s safety — may at first blush seem laudable. But, as Brooks points out, the police are a blunt instrument for enforcing parenting mores. There’s an idea that the authorities, given the opportunity to investigate, will be able to make the proper determination about guilt and innocence, but in practice all sorts of factors, including racial and gender bias, play into who calls the police on whom, and how the police react. (Sometimes these factors become obvious, as in the incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April, when an employee called the police to report two black men who were subsequently arrested on suspicion of trespassing.)

Brooks interviews Debra Harrell, a single African-American woman who let her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park a mile from the McDonald’s where she was working. After someone called the police, her daughter was sent to a foster care facility for 14 days. What kind of mom did the police officer see when he interrogated a tearful Harrell? What did viewers see when her local news station aired video of her interrogation? Brooks, who is married, white and a writer by profession, ruefully recalls something her lawyer told her during their initial conversation: “You’re not the kind of mom they’ll throw the book at.”

At times, Brooks’s summaries of academic thought can seem dutiful and rushed; she’s best when she takes the time to digest the material and present her own insights. One of the more interesting lines of study she explores involves research by a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Irvine who found that people confuse moral evaluations with risk assessments. A child left unattended so that his mother could meet her lover was determined by participants in one study to be in greater danger than a child left unattended because his mother was rendered unconscious after being hit by a car. “People don’t think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” Brooks writes. “They think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

If you don’t think it’s any great loss that most children no longer walk to school alone or play outside without supervision — these are among the former freedoms of childhood that Brooks invokes — then no amount of vigilance seems like too much. But Brooks argues that if we weighed risk rationally, we might worry about the relationship between restrictions on kids’ play and rising rates of obesity. We might think about the benefits to children of independence and self-reliance and problem solving, and the cost of taking that independence away.

It’s good that we’re attuned to risk. Compared with older generations, we know more about the dangers of airbags to kids, and we’re more likely to make our kids wear bike helmets and to teach them about “good and bad touch” — when it is and isn’t appropriate for another person to touch them and how. But, reading Brooks’s book, I realized that my own daughter, now 8, is the same age I was when I became a latchkey kid. It has never occurred to me to leave her at home alone, even for a few minutes, yet surely she is as capable as I was then. We live in the same small town where I grew up; if anything, it’s safer now.

Fear itself has a cost. Brooks recounts that one day, as her case was winding through the law-enforcement system, she gave her son permission to sell cookies in front of their home. She was inside washing dishes, watching him from the window, when two police officers walked up. In an instant, she imagined what this looked like: the little boy on his own, his mother having abandoned him yet again. She ran outside, yelling to the officers that she’d seen him from the kitchen the whole time. But it turned out they just wanted to buy a cookie.

Original Article

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