About three years ago, I took the twins with me to pick up a pizza because the wife was not at home. With three-year-old twins, there’s a lot that goes into merely picking up a pizza a few streets away. I had to round up the girls, put on their shoes, and bundle them up in their coats, which in and of itself makes the act of strapping them into their car seats a pain in the ass. It’s a ten-minute process just to get them into the minivan for a 3-minute drive.
The pizza place was a storefront that I could drive right up to and park, not five feet away from the expansive windows of the restaurant, which has only a counter and a pizza kitchen behind it. I could walk into the pizza place, pay for the pizza, and return to the car in under 90 seconds. But, I had the twins with me, so I was faced with a predicament: Unstrap them from their seats on each side of the car, walk them in, answer the 27 questions they have about the pizza place, pay for the pizza while trying to herd the girls, walk them back out — and pray that neither one sprints out into the parking lot — and re-strap them into their car seats, another pain in the ass experience that would easily quadruple the time it takes to pick up a pizza, not to mention spike my blood pressure when I am forced to strap two squirmy, resistant toddlers back into their seats.
… or, I could just leave them in the car, run in and pay, and quickly dash back out. The van was warm; the girls were bundled; I’d lock the car behind me, and I could see them through the windows the entire 90 seconds I was inside paying. It would have saved me seven or eight minutes of hassle, not to mention the last shred of my sanity. It would’ve been so easy.
In the end, however, I caved and I marched them in with me. Was it because I was afraid someone would kidnap them? Or that I feared their safety in any way? Absolutely not. They were actually much safer in the car for 90 seconds than they were in the pizza joint and the parking lot. I took them out for one reason only: Because I didn’t want to get arrested, as had happened to a friend of mine who had once left his kids locked safely in his car for less than five minutes.
It is also the peg upon which Kim Brooks builds her book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear around. A harried Brooks — a fairly typical, responsible, and loving mother — once left her son in her car with an iPad for a few minutes while she ran into Target to buy him a pair of headphones. The incident ultimately tied her up in the legal system for two years after someone else in the parking lot ratted her out to the police.
Small Animals basically tackles the question of whether there is a rational basis in the fears of modern parents, or whether kids were better off in our generation when we were often left in cars, when we had the freedom to roam around our neighborhoods unsupervised, and when we could walk to the store around the corner and buy our parents a pack of smokes.
I’ll give you the short answer: There is no rational basis in that fear. In fact, Brooks imparts over the course of an entire book the same lessons about parenting as the Freakonomics imparted about hitchhiking in a 28-minute episode of their podcast. That is to say: Leaving your kid in the car for a few minutes while you run inside to get an item or two is no more dangerous than hitchhiking, and statistically speaking, the odds of confronting violence while hitchhiking is practically nil.
The problem, of course, is that when these statistically insignificant events happen, they get blown out of proportion. In the late 1970s, there were a couple of violent incidents involving hitchhiking and though you are about as likely to get bitten by a shark than murdered while hitchhiking, those news stories made a huge splash in the news media, and eventually, hitchhiking was made illegal. The same principle applies to leaving one’s kids in the car or letting them run around the neighborhood unsupervised: The statistically insignificant incidents of violence or kidnapping in those situations get completely blown out of proportion. If a kid gets taken from a car, there’s an Amber Alert, the local news picks it up, it can make the national news, get spread around on social media, or talked to death by the likes of someone like Nancy Grace. The reality, however, is that it is far more dangerous to drive your kid to the store than it is to leave her in the car while you’re inside.
The other reality, however, is this: Those unfounded fears are now baked into the system. There’s little we can do to combat them. It’s our new reality.
As for whether I’d recommend the Brooks book? It’s fine, a fairly dry, parenting book that largely reinforces the experiences most parents have with giving birth, raising kids, dealing with judgemental parents all around us, as well as our own concerns about our identities being wrapped up in our children (a problem more typical for mothers, even in families where fathers participate equally or more in the parenting process).
I will just say this about those worries/fears/concerns when it comes to raising kids — it reminds me of law school and grades, which law students are cripplingly obsessed with. In law school, we often wrap our entire self-worth up into how we do on law school exams, so much so that a B+ can leave us feeling insecure and worthless. But here’s the thing about those grades: Once you graduate, no one really gives a shit. That B+ in torts is not going to follow you around for the rest of your life. A year after law school is over, it’ll never come up again. That’s kind of how I feel about parenting babies and toddlers and preschoolers: All that shit you obsess and worry about during those first few years becomes pretty much irrelevant once the kid goes to kindergarten.
Do your best. Love your kids. Be good people. Take your kids into the store with you so you don’t get arrested, and everything else will take care of itself.
Header Image Source: MacMillan