This story infuriates me. A mother named Kim Brooks left her 4yo buckled up in the car for five minutes on a cool day and ended up facing criminal charges.
“He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as a sort of pre-tantrum agitation. ‘No, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to go in,’ he repeated, and turned back to his game.
“I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.
“He didn’t die. He wasn’t kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition.
“Over the past two years, I’ve replayed this moment in my mind again and again, approaching the car, getting in, looking in the rearview mirror, pulling away. I replay it, trying to uncover something in the recollection I hadn’t noticed at the time. A voice. A face. Sometimes I feel like I can hear something. A woman? A man? ‘Bye now.’ Something. But I can’t be sure.
“We flew home. My husband was waiting for us beside the baggage claim with this terrible look on his face. ‘Call your mom,’ he said.
“I called her, and she was crying. When she’d arrived home from driving us to the airport, there was a police car in her driveway.”
She knew leaving him in the car on a 75 degree day could be deadly. It wasn’t 75; it was 50 and overcast. She knew she was going into the store to buy a single, simple item, and that she’d be right back out. Knowing that she was facing almost-certain meltdown tantrum that could make them late for their flight, she made a calculated decision.
Unfortunately, that decision was witnessed by a concerned citizen. He recorded video of it, and handed that video to the police. She was charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”, and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She asked her lawyer why the good samaritan couldn’t have spoken to her and gotten her side of the story, before rushing off to the police.
“Here’s how I look at it. I’m glad we live in a world where people are watching out for kids. I’m glad that when someone thinks they’re seeing something wrong take place, they get involved. But in your case, what happened wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t neglectful. It was a temporary lapse in judgment. This is what we need to stress.”
“I’m glad we live in a world where people are watching out for kids.” Well, that certainly sounds an awful lot like some rationalization I recently did for myself. It doesn’t really make what the informant did any less enraging.
“I picture this concerned someone standing beside my car, inches from my child, holding a phone to the window, recording him as he played his game on the iPad. I imagined the person backing away as I came out of the store, watching me return to the car, recording it all, not stopping me, not saying anything, but standing there and dialing 911 as I drove away. Bye now. At this point, almost a year had passed since it happened. I could hear my lawyer shuffling papers. I looked down and saw that my hands were shaking. My hands were shaking, but unlike before, I wasn’t afraid. I was enraged.”
Yup, that’s about how I’d be.
A failed state ordinance would have made a first offense of her type a mere $100 fine. In the absence of that, she faced the possibility of losing her children by order of a juvenile court. In the end, she took her lawyer’s advice, and she only had to complete 100 hours of community service and attend parenting education for nine months.
While awaiting her fate, Mrs. Brooks was advised by a friend to contact Lenore Skenazy. Dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” in 2009 for letting her then-9yo son ride the subway by himself, she is now a popular speaker and author of articles and books. She is also the voice behind Free-Range Kids, a blog billed as offering “a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times”. Ms. Skenazy explained that there’s risk in almost every decision we make.
“Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make…So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car…It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is…there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?
“…There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”
She’s right. Worse yet, the very helicopter parenting that’s supposed to keep kids safe may actually be hurting them. Brooks notes, “Psychologists and social scientists wonder if we’re not instilling children with a sense of learned helplessness that makes them into subfunctional, narcissistic young adults who have an overinflated sense of worth and sensitivity and, more recently, require trigger warnings on college syllabi.” Her friend and former classmate, Julia Fierro, wrote a novel about parental anxiety and placed blame on social media and information overload. She says we have “too much information — parenting books, birthing classes, a gazillion blogs and parenting sites and magazines, and anonymous online sites where parents are very judgmental, even when trying to help or give advice.” She also thinks that “all that info, all the conflicting extreme philosophies of parenting (attachment parenting vs. cry-it-out and few moderate philosophies being promoted) makes us not trust ourselves.” Ms. Fierro may be on to something. I’ve certainly seen judgmental “good samaritans” at work in person.
If we’re to fight irrational fear and take back parenting from worrywarts (including ourselves), I think we need to be more like Lenore Skenazy. I don’t always agree with her, but have a lot of respect for the work she does. For a short introduction to her thoughts on “free-range” parenting, I recommend her recent appearance in a Cato Daily Podcast episode. For a lengthier presentation, check out her speech and Q&A at a Cato Institute Policy Forum. From the latter:
“Our children are in constant danger from — to quote Lenore Skenazy’s list — ‘kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.’ Or so a small army of experts and government policymakers keep insisting. School authorities punish kids for hugging a friend, pointing a finger as a pretend gun, or starting a game of tag on the playground. Congress bans starter bikes on the chance that some 12-year-old might chew on a brass valve. Police arrest parents for leaving a sleepy kid alone in the back seat of a car for a few minutes. Yet overprotectiveness creates perils of its own. It robs kids not only of fun and sociability but of the joy of learning independence and adult skills, whether it be walking a city street by themselves or using a knife to cut their own sandwich.”
Sad but true.
Mrs. Brooks considers herself very lucky. I really can’t blame her, given what she faced. The thing is, it’s not just the criminal charges she faced that make me angry. She admits to being “old friends” with irrational fear, and she seems to willingly accept the premise that she made a lapse in judgment.
She did not have a lapse in judgement. She made a rational decision based on risk-benefit analysis. Some parents may disagree with the conclusion she came to (and I’m not even certain I don’t), but it was not negligent or irresponsible. We should all have the freedom to make similar decisions for families.