Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship's Reviews > Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Small Animals by Kim Brooks
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bookshelves: nonfiction, sociology, united-states, memoirs, 4-stars

I only recently realized the extent to which helicopter parenting in America has become the norm, the expectation, sometimes even in the law of the land. That the definition of a “good parent” now requires keeping an eye on your child at every moment. That kids’ hanging out with friends has been formalized into “playdates,” typically arranged by parents and involving play directed by at least one parent, often with both kids' parents present. That parents hover over their children on playgrounds, issuing a constant stream of instructions and intervening in their interactions with other children. That parents consider it highly risky to allow kids to play in their own yards unsupervised, and in some cases bystanders will call the police if they see it; walking around a suburban middle-class neighborhood in the daytime is right out. That parents’ decisions about the sort of childhood their kids will have are driven by fear, of improbable catastrophes or Child Protective Services or both. In retrospect this should have been evident. There are kids living in my neighborhood, I think; I only ever see them going from house to car and back.

It’s all driven by fear, even though this is the safest time to be a kid in American history. Parents are paranoid about kidnapping, despite the fact that stranger kidnappings are extremely rare (and usually involve teenagers). A kid would have to be alone in public for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before they’re statistically likely to be kidnapped. As for the actual risks to kids? Car accidents are a big one, killing over a thousand American kids each year, yet harried parents will pile kids into a car rather than letting them walk or bike or take public transit alone. Childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise, with 1/3 of the country likely to be diabetic by 2050, likely in large part because kids don’t get to run around anymore and instead spend their time staring at screens, losing out on exercise as well as opportunities to explore and develop social skills. Depression and anxiety are increasing among the young too, and no wonder, when they’re taught that the world is a terrifying place and simultaneously given no power over their own lives.

What a terrible time to be a child! How can they become independent, self-reliant adults when their parents dictate their every move? How will they acquire good judgment or self-confidence without the opportunity to take risks and make meaningful decisions? How will they learn social skills when they see other kids only in highly structured, adult-organized environments, and with adults mediating their every interaction? How will they develop creativity without down time? How will they develop resilience without being allowed to fail or be hurt? How will they recognize obsession and controlling behavior from a romantic partner as early warning signs of abuse, when this is how their parents showed love? Is it surprising that the more powerless kids become, the more they bully each other? And what about simple enjoyment of childhood; isn’t kids’ enjoyment of the first 18 years of their lives important enough for parents to learn to tolerate some anxiety?

This book delves into the culture of fear around parenting today. Brooks was a helicopter parent herself, but one day she was arrested for leaving her four-year-old son in the car for a few minutes on a cool, overcast day while she ran into the store. Her ordeal led her to learn more about what is going on with parenting in America, to examine why she and so many others are so fearful, and the consequences of it. How we got here makes sense: the news media broadcasts attention-grabbing headlines to draw in viewers; exposing oneself to stories about parents' worst nightmares makes the worst seem common and likely; parents respond, irrationally but understandably, by curtailing kids’ freedoms; once this becomes common, it’s expected, and even parents not inclined to be paranoid feel it is the norm and don’t want to feel that they’re putting their kids at risk, while others know their kids are safe but are forced to toe the line anyway for fear of someone calling CPS.

There are some terrible stories in this book – like the single mother (much less privileged than the author) who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a park with friends (and of course lots of adults present) during the day while the mom was at work . . . not only was the mother arrested and interrogated, but her daughter was taken to a group home for two weeks without being able to see her mother, and ended up afraid to even leave the house. Of course this doesn’t happen to most families, but we’ve created a culture in which parents are expected to be always monitoring and focused on their kids, to the point that they have no lives of their own (a great example for the little ones I’m sure). How dare they do something as simple as running into Starbucks alone for their own convenience! They must not want to be parents, since they clearly don’t want to watch their kids!

At any rate, I found this to be a well-written memoir and an accessible work of nonfiction (short and engaging enough that hopefully even parents consumed by the demands of shuttling kids to half a dozen activities will be able to read it!). It’s a reflection on the state of parenting today rather than a how-to book; the author talked to experts as well as dissecting her own attitudes and decisions, but stops short of offering solutions. I do wish she’d talked to more kids, or young adults raised by helicopter parents; she only interviews one teenager, and he’s an unusual case. Mostly she talks about the consequences of today’s parenting on parents themselves. She discusses interesting studies, writes about the way people are judgmental toward mothers in particular, and has insightful commentary on related subjects (like whether being a stay-at-home mom versus a working mom is really a choice for most people. Her answer: not really, but at the time she still turned necessity into a virtue when discussing her own “choice”). I hope lots of people read this book, and that it will be a wake-up call.
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Reading Progress

June 5, 2018 – Shelved
June 5, 2018 – Shelved as: not-yet-released
August 17, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
August 29, 2018 – Started Reading
August 31, 2018 – Shelved as: nonfiction
August 31, 2018 – Shelved as: sociology
August 31, 2018 – Shelved as: united-states
August 31, 2018 – Shelved as: memoirs
August 31, 2018 – Finished Reading
September 5, 2018 – Shelved as: 4-stars

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Carol. (new)

Carol. Fascinating review.


message 3: by Justine (new)

Justine Ugh. We had a case here recently where a single father got into trouble with Child and Family Services because his four kids, aged 6-12, were taking public transit together to get to school and back. There are no rules on our transit system saying kids need to be accompanied and apparently these kids were all comfortable users with no behaviour issues happening on the trips. But some busybody thought it wasn't right and reported this to CFS and so they investigated, and in a ridiculous ass covering move, decided it was a problem. There were a lot of details reported about this and it is very clear from the investigators own admissions that this was the case.

Of course that has caused a huge uproar as public transit is how a lot of kids get to school. In the city, school buses are just not a thing. And yes, one of the things the father provided statistical evidence for in the CFS investigation was that the kids were far more likely to be injured in a car accident than the bus, and second, there had only ever been a single incident of attempted kidnapping in the history of transit in this major urban centre and it was unsuccessful.

Oh, they also told him the kids weren't allowed to walk unescorted to their mom's house - the parents live in a wealthy downtown area in highrise condos across the street from each other.

Super aggravating.


message 4: by Carol. (new)

Carol. Wow, Justine, that sounds like a ridiculous case. Kudos on the father for being above average with his fighting back :)

I've kind of always wondered about the helicopter parenting, but honestly, it sounds like one of those Catch-22s that even if you aren't naturally one, you end up doing it because of the social expectations.


Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship That really is absurd! Justine, do you know whether the father was successful, or did CFS force him to shepherd his kids everywhere?


message 6: by Justine (new)

Justine I think it is still an ongoing thing but haven't heard anything lately. The problem is that once CFS has your number, that's basically it, you're "in the system." It's particularly a problem if there are any custody issues too, so I can understand why some people wouldn't want to rock the boat too much.

Thankfully not everyone is just going along with this whole helicopter parenting thing though. Lenore Skenazy is a very vocal proponent of "free range parenting" or what I like to call sensible parenting :D

Carol, you are right about the pressure of social expectations. I used to get quite a bit of flak at the park because of my daughter's affinity for tree climbing. Like, no, I am not going to tell her not to climb trees but to stick to the so safe it's completely unchallenging and boring playground equipment. That's another aspect of the culture of helicopter parenting though, to make everything ostensibly "safe". It doesn't at all take into account that risk management and exercise of judgment are critical life skills that need to be learned and practiced.


message 7: by Carol. (new)

Carol. "That's another aspect of the culture of helicopter parenting though, to make everything ostensibly "safe". It doesn't at all take into account that risk management and exercise of judgment are critical life skills that need to be learned and practiced."

This is a concept I'm fascinated with. Is it a reflection of our cultural anxiety?

What does 'safe' mean, and why can't we see that a discussion of it is usually embedded in privilege? Our city is redoing a playground in the neighborhood to make it more 'safe.' The last time that I looked, that included these amazing durable rubber surfaces that went around the toys. Yet, as we do this, there are children that are homeless, and children that don't have enough to eat. Not too much in our town, but there are two nearby cities where kids don't even dare play outside. So this concept of safety discounts baseline inequity. Middle class kids are protected from needing stitches, while poor kids are protected from... ?

As it sounds like your author points out, it usually isn't the "stranger-danger" that we need to protect children from. Abuse is the most likely danger, and that usually is people the child knows.


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