Parenting in a Climate of Fear
BY KIM BROOKS/School Administrator, June 2019

Book author Kim Brooks (left) believes many parents promote feelings of helplessness in their children and deprive them of learning independence.
Several years ago, Barbara Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at UC Irvine, read an essay I wrote for Salon about being arrested for allowing my son to wait in the car on a cool day for a few minutes. Sarnecka was disturbed by the judgmental surveillance culture depicted in the essay but also by the cultural assumption at the heart of my ordeal. This was the assumption that a child left unsupervised in any environment, for any amount of time, is a child in peril.

The essay reminded her of an experience she had had several years earlier at her son’s school. Her son was 9 and had been attending an after-care program. Sarnecka would pick him up when she was done with work and walk him to a park adjacent to the school where his friends were playing. One day her son informed her he found the after-care program boring. He wished to go to the park right after school to play.

Sarnecka’s job didn’t allow her to get to the school in time for that so she had an idea. Why couldn’t he simply walk to the park himself and play with his friends. Then Sarnecka would meet him there 45 minutes later. There was no street to cross and no crime in the area. There were always plenty of kids and adults at the park. Also, this was taking place in Irvine, one of the safest towns in America.

Sarnecka and her son put the plan into action, but after only a few days, she received a call from the school principal. Another parent had seen her son playing without her supervision. The parent was concerned and so was the principal. The school did not provide after-school care in the park, he reminded her. Wasn’t she afraid? And, though he didn’t say it in these words, wasn’t she ashamed? This, she told me, was the unspoken implication.

Sarnecka put the incident behind her for almost six years. Eventually, it was time for her son to get his learner’s permit. What shocked her then was that no one expressed concern about his safety or brought up the harrowing statistics about how many teenagers are killed in moving vehicles each year. She realized then that what she had experienced at the school had nothing to do with risk and nothing to do with safety. It had to do with moral judgment. It had to do with the restricting of children’s basic freedoms and with adults’ irrational fears.

Promoting Helplessness
As I did research for my book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, I heard many variations of this story from other parents. One friend told me her child was informed he could not walk home from school (it was less than a mile) because he could be eaten by a bear. Another man I interviewed told me that when he waved at middle school students on their way home from school while walking his dog, they were warned to take a different route because he “might be a predator.”

In schools across the country, our irrational obsession with “stranger danger” and our assumption of children’s helplessness and incompetence when it comes to the simplest of tasks (such as walking across a small field to a park) has hurt scores of children, parents and educators. It hurts children by depriving them of the basic freedom and independence they need to learn and grow. It hurts parents by draining the valuable time and resources they might spend working or making a more well-rounded and fulfilling life for themselves and their children, and it hurts educators by transforming them from teachers and mentors into wardens. If schools want to be places where children come to learn rather than places they’re warehoused while their parents work, then children should arrive and depart freely and on their own two feet whenever possible.

When I suggested this to Barbara Sarnecka, she agreed. We reminisced about the long walks we took to and from school as children 30 years ago — daydreaming, thinking and interacting with nature and other children free from an adult’s watchful eye.

The process of growing up is not just where you’re going. It’s how you get there.

KIM BROOKS, a resident of Chicago, Ill., is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. Twitter: @KA_Brooks