Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

A examination of the ways our culture of competitive and judgmental parenting has profoundly altered the experiences of parents.

Home » Book Summaries » Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

kk: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.
kk: Today, we’re discussing Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear By Kim Brooks
In this title, the author explores how parenthood has become filled with fear, anxiety, and constant intervention. She examines how our perceptions of danger have become so distorted that we intervene, watch, and manage our children’s lives at the cost of their freedom, fun, and well-being.
kk: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.
kk: Vincent, how does the author describe the rise of fearful parenting?
vp: Kim Brooks is a writer, editor, and a mother of 4 children. All parents feel profound fears about illnesses or accidents or simply fears for the future. It’s a natural part of being a parent because you aren’t solely in charge of your life but protecting your child’s life, too. But Brooks questions whether these fears are legitimate, and whether they are helping us protect our children, or are they actually hurting them.
kk: What prompted Brooks to write about why parents are so fearful and whether their fears are misplaced?
vp: It was actually an incident in her life that prompted her. She was arrested for leaving her 4-year-old son in the car alone for a few minutes under conditions she deemed safe and that led to no harm. This made her question everything she knew about parental fear and anxiety.
So she analyzes the scary things we worry about, like kidnapping, are highly unlikely, should we be concentrating on far more common threats to physical and mental health? She combines personal experiences with documentary evidence to see if societal fears today limit childhood freedom.
kk: Okay, can you explain a little more about her arrest?
vp: Yes, so she was traveling from Virginia to Chicago with her 4-year-old son and stopped at Target to get him headphones to keep him quiet on their flight. He didn’t want to go into the store with her so she left him playing on his iPad while she ran in to avoid any potential tantrums. Her thought process was what could go wrong in a locked car in a quiet parking lot in a safe part of town? It was a cool day so no risk of overheating, she’d child-locked the car and activated the alarm. In 5 minutes she was in and out of the store and her son, absorbed in his game, didn’t even look up when she returned and they drove to the airport.
kk: My parents have done that same thing in certain situations. So, if her son was safe and they were able to leave, how was she arrested?
vp: When they returned home to Chicago she got a call from the local Virginia police force that in the 5 minutes she was in Target, someone had seen her son alone in the car. Concerned for his safety, the person filmed her son and called the police. When the author returned and drove away, the observer gave the police the car’s license plate number.
kk: Wow. I’m not sure who’s side to take, the authors’ or observers’. What was she charged with if her son was fine?
vp: Although her son hadn’t suffered harm nor was being exposed to any apparent risk, the author was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a charge used in cases where someone is accused of neglecting or exposing a child to harm.
Brooks had to get a lawyer, go to Virginia, and perform 100 hours of community service to avoid prosecution. She said the punishment was bearable but the emotional impact the situation had on her was far worse.
kk: I can’t imagine the mixture of emotions she must have felt. What was the supposed threat that had caused the bystander to take a video and report it to the police?
vp: Brooks said she felt shocked about being arrested and shameful. The police had felt that her son had been at risk of a potential kidnapping, which seemed ridiculous to her. The risk of kidnapping was tiny compared to things like speeding cars, unfenced swimming pools, and open windows. Actually, the number of missing persons reports concerning minors at the time was at a record low, and out of all missing persons cases, only 0.1% were an out-of-the-blue kidnapping.
When she talked about it with friends and family, some responses left the author feeling judged and insecure in her decisions as a mother.
kk: What would you do?
vp: As the bystander?
kk: Yes, if you walked past a car outside target with a 4 year old locked in the backseat.
vp: I don’t know. But I think I probably would report it too.
kk: Me too…. So was anyone on her side?
vp: Years later, Brooks wrote an essay for the website Salon, detailing her experience and reflecting on the different risks parents take. The reactions were mixed, with many readers agreeing that contemporary parenting involves a great deal of paranoia.
But, many people were hostile and critical to the point they said she shouldn’t have had kids. She said the level of hostility towards her was the kind you’d think would belong to someone who would harm others.
kk: It seems that today, attitudes toward parenting are infused with fear that is out of sync with rational evaluations of risks. Why has parenting become much more anxious and hands-on?
vp: The author said it’s largely due to how attitudes toward having children have changed. Think of the stories your parents or grandparents told you about their childhood. They’ll likely recall stories that would seem completely unrealistic today.
For example, the author’s father used to tell her about how her grandma would send him to the grocery at 8 or 9 years old and he would pick up some bread, a pint of milk, and a pack of smokes, remembering his sense of pride in returning home with the correct change and the required items.
kk: What has caused the shift that has led to such independence and freedom being viewed as dangerous and has filled parenting with anxiety?
vp: Some parenting experts have theorized that parenthood has become more of a choice than it was previously. Only about a century ago, adults had kids because it was an economic necessity to do so, because it was customary, or because it was seen as a moral obligation to their family and community.
kk: And today it’s perfectly acceptable to choose not to have children.
vp: Yes, and along with that choice we have started to look at parenthood as a carefully thought-out decision based on the desire to have children, not the need to have them. And possibly, as a result, our approach to parenting has become more hands-on and anxious about if we are making the right parenting decisions day-to-day.
Even though more parents today are working, they are still spending more time with their children.
The author said when she was 10 her parents got her a moped and she spent her days cruising around town on it. She contrasts that with her experience as mom, feeling like the CEO of a small company- arranging playdates, planning birthday parties, and applying to enrichment programs.
kk: Today since parenting is largely a choice, the stakes are higher and there is more pressure to be a good parent. That’s probably what led to childhoods that are less free and characterized by parental supervision and intervention.
vp: Exactly. Fear is often misplaced and focused on things that in reality, are low risk.
kk: Like kidnapping?
vp: Yes. Statistically, it would take around 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be kidnapped by a stranger. The author argues that the abduction of a child from a locked car is fantastically rare.
But the other side of that argument is that abductions of children from cars are rare because the overwhelming number of parents today wouldn’t leave their children in a car.
The author talked with Kenore Skenazy, a mom and the founder of a movement called Free Range Kids. This movement fights the view that children are in constant danger. According to Skenazy, the riskiest thing the author had done was to put her son in the car in the first place. In 2015 on average, 487 children were injured and 3 were killed in a car accident every day in the US.
kk: Following this logic, if we really wanted to reduce risks to children, we wouldn’t drive them anywhere.
vp: And yet we accept and ignore that risk, while the far less likely risk of kidnapping leads to shaming and prosecution.
kk: Why have we come to think like this?
vp: One explanation for why minimal threats like kidnapping are so powerful in our imagination is the psychological phenomenon called the availability heuristic. Put simply, this is the tendency that people have to judge the likelihood of something happening not by rational thought, but by how easy it is to recall an example of the same thing happening. So when you hear a crazy story on the news, you remember it because it’s unlike others you’ve seen before.
kk: There have been significant research studies published about the availability heuristic in the age of mass media.
vp: Exactly. The fears of kidnapping peaked during the 1980s with high-profile cases being covered by the media, making the threat seem large, even though children were more likely to choke on food.
kk: And though few, kidnappings have been covered extensively in the media since then and the plotlines of movies and TV shows included such events as a way to entice viewers.
vp: That’s very true. From this, we’ve also started to manufacture fears to justify moral judgements about other parents who we think are bad.
For example, a friend of the author’s once said that he wouldn’t let his children out of his sight, not because he worried something would happen to them, but because he worried that someone would see him and judge his actions.
kk: So are the fears about children’s safety really moral judgments from other parents to make themselves feel adequate?
vp: A 2016 study at the University of California, Irvine, suggests the answer is yes.
Researchers created an experiment in which participants were asked to judge the morality and risk of different situations in which parents leave their children for a few minutes. In one situation, a baby was left sleeping alone in a car in a cool underground parking lot. In another, an eight-year-old was left in Starbucks for an hour, a block away from her mother. The reason why the parent was absent varied. In some scenarios they were hit by a car and left unconscious, or at work, relaxing, or having an affair.
As you may suspect, participants’ judgment about whether the parent had done something immoral was impacted by their reason for being away. A parent having an affair was judged more harshly than one working or unconscious.
Surprisingly, people’s assessment of risk was impacted by morality. A child left alone in a car was judged to be at greater risk if her absent parent was meeting a lover than if the parent was lying unconscious.
kk: The researchers’ conclusion is clear: People’s moral judgment came first, and their assessment of risk followed accordingly.
vp: And Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University agrees with this conclusion. He told the author that when we decide that we think something or someone is morally wrong, we realize that we need something to back up that belief.
For example, you can’t just say, “I morally disapprove of what you are doing,” so we fabricate danger to back up what is essentially a moral judgment.
What he is saying is that when we criticize parents for their choices, we often aren’t making fair assessments of the risks involved. We are simply judging those parents as bad mothers or fathers. But perhaps the opposite is true.
kk: That’s super interesting. Are certain types of parents more or less likely to face societal judgments about parenting decisions?
vp: Yes, the author said that as she heard stories of other parents arrested for reasons similar to her, she came to realize that the cost of society’s fear and judgment toward parents is taken out on low-income parents or parents without access to childcare.
kk: This title has highlighted how tough it is to be a parent today with the fear of constant scrutany. What effect does this have on kids?
vp: It results in parents not giving their children the freedom that they need to have fun and learn how to be adults. University of Texas historian Steven Mintz, has tracked the history of American childhood. He agrees with the author that children have lost freedom. Mintz claims that unstructured play and outdoor play for children declined by almost 40% from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. Instead of meeting friends and playing freely, children spend their lives being driven from tennis classes to organized play dates.
kk: What are the consequences of this lack of freedom and unstructured play?
vp: One is that health conditions in children are on the rise. Childhood obesity rates are rising in part because they are no longer allowed to run around outside without parental supervision.
The Centers for Disease Control says that, if current trends continue, one in three adults in 2050 could have diabetes. In contrast, a child has a less than one in a million chance of being abducted and murdered. But diabetes lacks the drama of kidnapping, so we pay it less attention.
Another is the consequence of overbearing parenting on mental health. A 2013 study of 300 college students with overprotective, interfering parents, found that these students suffered higher levels of depression.
kk: So are all the efforts modern parents put into parenting to provide their children with the best opportunities and reduce risks and threats, actually harming children?
vp: Possibly.
kk: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is that not only are parents today fearful, but they are fearful of the wrong things. When examined rationally, risks that are small are given disproportionate attention. Therefore, children today are denied the freedoms that previous generations had, due to the fear of risks and societal judgment. And this all has a cost: stressed, ashamed parents, and children whose physical and mental health suffers.
kk: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.
vp: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.
kk: We’ll see you next time.

One morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into a store. What happened would consume the next several years of her life and spur her to investigate the broader role America’s culture of fear plays in parenthood. In Small Animals, Brooks asks, Of all the emotions inherent in parenting, is there any more universal or profound than fear? Why have our notions of what it means to be a good parent changed so radically? In what ways do these changes impact the lives of parents, children, and the structure of society at large? And what, in the end, does the rise of fearful parenting tell us about ourselves?

Fueled by urgency and the emotional intensity of Brooks’s own story, Small Animals is a riveting examination of the ways our culture of competitive, anxious, and judgmental parenting has profoundly altered the experiences of parents and children. In her signature style―by turns funny, penetrating, and always illuminating―which has dazzled millions of fans and been called “striking” by New York Times Book Review and “beautiful” by the National Book Critics Circle, Brooks offers a provocative, compelling portrait of parenthood in America and calls us to examine what we most value in our relationships with our children and one another.

Leave a Comment