Do you let your kids walk to school alone? Go to the park with a friend, unsupervised? Wait in the car for five minutes while you run into the drugstore?
They’re questions that moms hardly blinked at a generation ago, but in today’s time, have become hot-button issues, the answers bait for mommy shamers: should kids ever be left alone? And if so, at what age?
Kim Brooks tackles the topics in her new book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. Caught up in the conversation herself — she faced a charge of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” in 2011 when she left her 4-year-old son Felix alone in the car as she ran into a Virginia Target — Brooks turns to experts and fellow moms to find out when and why parents, and mothers in particular, decided that leaving kids alone for any length of time is dangerous.
“We’ve gotten to a point where when we think we see a child unsupervised that it constitutes an emergency — that a child not directly observed by an adult is a child in peril,” Brooks tells PEOPLE. “The shift isn’t rooted in anything — the world is actually safer than a generation ago. We’re just not giving children the freedom in the world on their own.”
Brooks had taken Felix on a quick Target trip before heading to the airport for their flight home to Chicago in 2011. He wanted to stay in the car to play a game while she ran in, so she left him, windows down, doors locked, on a cool day. A stranger saw him alone, took video and turned it in to authorities.
When Brooks landed in Chicago she found out she was being investigated; she hired a lawyer and when told there was a warrant for her arrest in Virginia, returned there to turn herself in. She struck a deal for community service and parenting classes, and the charges were dropped; her pride, however, was hurt.
“I was flummoxed and confused, disappointed, scared. I never felt anger, though,” she shares. “Most people who do things like this aren’t out to hurt people, but are going on automatic — not thinking critically about actions or consequences.”
She credits the situation as the catalyst for writing the book. “I wouldn’t have learned all I learned, wouldn’t have made connections to other mothers and started a conversation about supporting each other and how to make changes,” she says.
These days, “the biggest thing I can do is try to listen to my children [now 8 and 11] when they are asking for more independence, and take their desire for independence seriously,” she says. “When my son says he wants to walk to a friend’s house by himself, or to school by himself, I might have asked ‘Is this safe?’ But what I’ve learned from speaking to occupational therapists and child psychologists is that when you take away or limit an activity, it hurts how a child learns and grows. I look at cost and benefit now.”
Recognizing that it’s “hard” to be the only parent giving your child freedom in an age of fear, Brooks points out that hovering can have a negative effect on kids.
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“Studies seem to say it does,” she explains. “There have been studies saying there’s been a great increase in the current generation in things like depression and anxiety, suicide, self-harm, substance abuse.
“It’s what you’d expect to see in adults if you took away free time, independence, the ability to play and resolve conflicts on their own, structure their own time. It impacts children developmentally, but also their overall psychological well-being.”
Writing the book, “I realized how little credit we give children, and how much they are capable of,” Brooks says. “When we don’t treat them like members of the community, they lose. Children are pretty darn smart and capable if we give them space and structure to grow.”
If readers take one thing away from her book, Brooks hopes it’s “the idea that fear is a real feeling, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But we don’t always have to live by fear.”