“Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear” By Kim Brooks. Flatiron Books, New York, August 2018. 256 pages. $26.99.
In a single generation, America’s style of parenting has changed radically — with significant and questionable impact on the children we parent. Parents do not escape unscathed, either.
“We are living in an age of fear,” writes Kim Brooks, author of “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.” Educated, informed and well-meaning parents have been “sucked into a cyclone of anxiety and micromanagement,” she writes, succumbing to their “directive instincts” and managing all parts of their children’s lives. Kids with helicopter parents have significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. “This inability to cope … can become a problem unto itself,” writes Brooks.
Brooks’ new book takes both a broad and detailed look at the state of parenting. A fine storyteller, she begins with her own parenting experiences, famously highlighted by her arrest at the age of 33. She left her 4-year-old son Felix in the car for about five minutes while she ran into Target to buy him a set of headphones for a plane trip later that day. A stranger took a picture and sent it to the police.
Her own story parallels the stories of parents everywhere in America. When haven’t we, as parents, done something we’re ashamed of without really knowing why we’re ashamed? Brooks’ son Felix was perfectly safe inside the car, with windows cracked open on a cool day, child locks engaged and safety alarms set. She broke no laws but spent two years coping with the repercussions of a decision that her parents had made scores of times with her.
Once you pick up “Small Animals,” you won’t want to put it down: Great storytelling. Fascinating content. Disturbing findings.
Brooks raises two essential questions: Why have notions of parenting and child safety changed so much? And how do these changes impact parents, kids and society? Brooks talks to sociologists, scholars, behavioral scientists, other parents, journalists who’ve covered these issues and friends. She identifies and tracks the changes and their impact, weaving in the discomfiting anecdotes of her own situation and that of so many other mothers who experienced similar harried moments and paid a price.
It turns out that Brooks was not the only mother to get in trouble for stepping away from her child for a few minutes. It happens multiple times around the country. Under tremendous pressure to be perfect parents ourselves, we judge other mothers. Thus, mothers keep their own embarrassing stories secret to avoid further humiliation. An article Brooks wrote for Salon brought the subject into the open and many mothers contacted her.
Who hasn’t wondered about our obsessive watchfulness, our constant need to keep our kids happy and entertained, our ever-soaring child-related expenses? Our consumer culture has merged with our uncompromising parenting mores to produce a parenting style that pits parents against each other, burdens families and launches children into adulthood lacking basic life skills. “Children of middle-class parents become economically worthless and emotionally priceless,” says sociologist Viviana Zeliger, writing on the sacralization of child life. Once essential to the economic well-being of the family, children are now draining family resources. The cost of daycare for an infant is about $17,000 a year, or the equivalent of a year’s tuition at a state college.
Fear-based parenting starts the minute a woman discovers she is pregnant. The warnings are dire, leaving some, like Brooks, to wonder how an embryo could possibly survive a “woman’s toxic womb.” A sensationalist media that once included the photos of missing children on milk bottles set off a social contagion of fear that bloomed, like a red tide, over time, infecting and paralyzing activities like independent play. Brooks looks at irrational fears and comes up with plenty. There are record low numbers of missing minors in this country. Ninety-six percent of missing kids are runaways. Only 0.1 percent of missing children are stereotypical kidnappings. Yet who can forget the sweet face of Etan Patz, kidnapped and killed in NYC in 1979, on posters and TV screens all over the country? Due to a phenomenon called “availability heuristic” — the likelihood of something happening not rooted in fact but in the ease with which we recall its happening — we succumb to irrational fear rather than fact-based evidence.
We all know the real perils kids face: Guns, cost of college, lack of social mobility as wages continue to stagnate, fattening foods, climate change. And car accidents. In 2015, 487 kids a day were hurt in accidents and three died each day. Yet we worry if a child plays in the park or walks her dog down the block.
The costs of fear-based parenting are high. A quarter of college students using college counseling centers take psychotropic drugs like antidepressants, anti-psychotics, ADHS stimulants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications — having missed opportunities to fail, face their fears or explore on their own. Kids, says one woman Brooks interviewed, “are being raised like veal, never allowed to take any risks or be responsible or independent in any way.”
American parents lack the kind of family support, such as subsidized daycare or family leave, found in many other industrialized nations. Rather than question the system, says Brooks, we embrace the challenge. American families are far more watchful and competitive than in other countries where families are universally supported. Here, parenting and fear are synonymous, with threats to children being America’s number one concern. Kids are more constrained and managed here in the United States, leaving them fewer opportunities to solve their own problems and gain life experiences. At the same time, parents and grandparents are nostalgic for the old days when they ran free, played until dusk and solved their social issues by themselves. Perhaps books like “Small Animals” will help restore some rational thought to a pervasive problem.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.