Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

When Kim Brooks pulled up to a Target with her son comfortably ensconced in the back seat, buckled and absorbed in an iPad, she wondered: “Why? Why did I have to … drag him inside? It was cool outside, hardly fifty degrees. The parking lot was safe.” The answer is, because in modern America if someone sees you leave your child unattended, even for just minutes, they can make a video and call the police, and the Commonwealth of Virginia can prosecute you for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. They can, and in Brooks’s case, they did. Once the article she wrote analyzing what her experience reveals about parenting these days went viral, Brooks produced Small Animals, a deeper dive into what free-range parenting spokesperson Lenore Skenazy describes as “this huge cultural shift in how we view children, in how we view parenting, in how we view the ability of children to move through the world.”

Small Animals

“[W]e now live in a society where most people believe a child cannot be out of an adult’s sight,” the two agree. In Skenazy’s words, “This idea that a good parent is a parent who watches and manages and meddles and observes ceaselessly … has profound consequences in the lives of parents and children [and it’s] not rooted in any true change or any real danger…. It’s rooted in irrational fear.” Brooks is at her best when establishing the existence of this new reality (e.g., “Unstructured play and outdoor activities for children three to eleven declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s”) and its senselessness (statistically speaking, sugary beverages and riding in a parent’s car present risk to a child’s health orders of magnitude higher than so-called stranger-danger, and yet our attempts to completely eliminate the latter have resulted in skyrocketing rates of maternal and adolescent anxiety).

She also does a lovely job of highlighting the disproportionate impact of the trend on women and low-income families:

It’s one thing to insist children can never be unsupervised to an economically privileged, partnered, professional woman … [but i]n a country that provides no subsidized childcare and no mandatory family leave, no assurance of flexibility in the workplace for employees, no universal preschool or early childhood education, and minimal safety nets or state-subsidized support services to parents and families, it is impossible to make it a crime to take your eyes off your children without also making it a crime to be poor.


One of the findings of Barbara Sarnecka’s study on risk assessment and moral judgment, the study in which people were asked to evaluate the danger children were in when left alone under different circumstances – and the moral “wrongness” of the parent who had left them – was that when participants were told a father had left his child for a few minutes to run into work, the level of risk to his child was equal to the risk when he left the child because of circumstances beyond his control (when he was struck unconscious by a car). When a woman was running into work, the moral judgment was closer to the level expressed at her [leaving the child unattended to go] shopping or hav[e] an affair.


I realized that my story, unusual as it might seem, had tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a “bad mother,” a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage…. Sanctification and public shaming are two sides of the same coin. A culture can’t venerate and idealize the selfless, martyred mother as much as we do without occasionally throwing an agreed-upon bad mommy onto the pyre.

Her attempt to explain how we got here meets with more limited success. Brooks puts her finger on suburbanization and two waves of high-profile, aberrant events: stranger kidnappings in the 1980s and hot-car deaths in the 1990s. She establishes that risk assessment and moral judgment are intertwined (e.g., “I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous or wrong; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous or wrong. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings were facts, and such ‘facts’ often led to disapproval and judgment.”). But her forays into history disappoint (surely Puritan, Victorian, and Babylonian modes of parenting were not as monolithic as temporal distance and Brooks’s characterization would make them seem).

Throughout, Brooks’s prose is good, but not as tight or moving as I had hoped. Sometimes she seems to be trying too hard to be quotable; at others, there’s almost a careless feel, just getting the job done, originality be damned (e.g., “When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips”).

And yet, we get glimpses of a brilliantly snarky woman:

It was a familiar dynamic between the two of us, a dynamic that had probably always been present in our relationship but that parenthood had exacerbated and intensified a hundredfold: my caring about a thing, an issue, an obligation or need of our shared family life—my caring what other people thought about us as a family—and his caring less, then my caring about his caring and then his frustration at my agitation about this discrepancy in our caring because really, why did we have to care so much about every small detail?


The good mothers I had grown up with were quiet, gentle-mannered Christian women. In the winter, they wore sweaters with reindeer on them. In summer, they wore loose, floral blouses. They wore Mary Kay lipstick and permed their hair and rolled hot dogs in crescent buns on special occasions and deferred to their husbands.


I donned the only swimsuit I’d brought with me. It wasn’t exactly a maternity swimsuit, but it wasn’t exactly not a maternity swimsuit.   

As well as a few truly special passages with analysis powered by analogy:

When I was a child, I believed that a wolf lived in the back of my closet, up near the black plastic bags of old clothes…. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet…. I lay in bed tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe.


[A fear of flying can be] your quirky little thing and it’s not really other people’s business. But when it comes to this fear about leaving children alone, which is equally irrational and equally not based on data or risk, the fear has become both common custom and law. Everyone is being compelled to share the phobia and if they don’t act like they share it, they are literally subject to litigation. You can be arrested and jailed and your kids can be taken away if you don’t behave in this way that’s demonstrably irrational.

While Small Animals isn’t perfect, the combination of incredibly important subject matter and undeniable bright spots produces a must-read for modern parents who sense that there’s a less fearful, less controlling, less counterproductive way—and even more so for those who don’t.

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