Jessica's Reviews > Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Small Animals by Kim Brooks
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, want-to-reread

This is possibly the best book I've read all year. Brooks captures perfectly what it is like to be a parent in modern-day America, how the majority of your decisions are spurred by fear — fear of what will happen to your child if you don't do everything correctly and/or fear of what others parents will say or do if they believe you aren't parenting correctly. Through the framework of her own personal experience getting charged with "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" for leaving her 4-year-old alone in the car for five minutes (on a cool day, safely strapped in watching a video), she explores why our kids can't have the same independence we or our parents did even though the world is actually safer, and what it's doing to us and to our kids.

Brooks delves into all different facets of this dilemma, including the ways in which privilege of class and race differentiate who can measure up to the "standard" of perfect parenting and who receives the most severe consequences for trusting their children to exist independently in public spaces the way children of previous generations did. She talks about the historical trends that led us to this bizarre point where any amount of unsupervised time is seen as equivalent to negligence. She explores the ways that the modern-day culture of parental judgment impacts fathers and mothers differently, and also shares fascinating research about how moral assessment and risk assessment provide a vicious feedback loop where children are seen as being more at risk if the subject thinks the parent's reason for being away from them is unjustified, and the greater assessment of risk makes the parent's decision even more immoral.

Brooks doesn't exactly leave the reader with hope (you can't really say, "Forget what other people think!" when you may face criminal charges or even lose your children for giving them more independence than someone else thinks you should) but she does offer commiseration and reassurance that yes, this really is as bananas as it seems. The people she interviews provide some small bits of advice, from what to do if the police are called on you to how to convince the parents around you that not giving your kids more freedom is actually more detrimental than tightly controlling them. That said, I still think it will be a very, very long time before I leave my child alone in a car for more than the few seconds it takes to return a shopping cart to the corral — not because I think he's in any danger whatsoever (I don't) but because I don't ever want to face what Brooks went through and jeopardize the possibility that I can adopt another child in the future.

I can only hope that if this book gains enough traction, maybe we can have a national conversation that makes "free range parenting" seem like less of a fringe movement and more of the gold standard for our children. Until then, I guess I'll just be grateful that whatever judgment I might face for my parenting decisions, at least no one's called the cops on me. Yet.
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Quotes Jessica Liked

Kim Brooks
“This problem of diminishing or demeaning women’s experiences by challenging their universality—to insist that if you can’t speak for everyone then you can’t speak for anyone—reminds me of a recent encounter I had during a panel discussion on motherhood and creativity. During the question-and-answer portion, a woman in the audience raised her hand, then made an incisive and thoughtful remark about the multitude of practical and artistic challenges mothers face as writers. She followed up her comment by adding that she wasn’t any sort of expert but “just a mom.” The idea that being “just a mom” was both an admission of a form of amateurism and a justification for disregarding a person—and all of her experiences, observations, knowledge, and so on—saddened and infuriated me.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“That March, the spring that I returned to Virginia to visit my family, I was deep into the phase of life my therapist would later call the All-Hands-on-Deck, Every-Man-for-Himself, Just-Trying-to-Survive phase of parenting, the phase Judith Warner writes of in Perfect Madness, the phase when, if you are a college- or graduate-school-educated working woman in her late twenties to early forties, you realize that every skill you have learned and perfected over the previous one to two decades of your life is of little to no use to you now.

To put it another way, before I had kids, my dream had been to become a mother and to write my first novel while the little ones napped. At the height of this All-Hands-on-Deck phase, my dream was to take a nap.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“So many places I went with my babies, the message seemed the same: You’re not really wanted here, but if you come anyway, don’t expect any help.
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“In the years since, whenever I tell people the facts of my case, that I left my four-year-old son in the car for five minutes, that someone recorded me doing so and called the police, that this single decision I made and its ramifications played out in my family’s life over the course of two years—when I recount these facts to some new friend or family member, to a reporter or colleague or radio-show host, they all want to know the same thing. “How did you feel?” they ask me. “How did you feel when you realized what was happening?”

It’s a simple enough question, yet it took me almost two years to answer it honestly. “I was scared,” I used to tell them. Or “I was shocked.” I would tell them I was angry or embarrassed or bewildered. And there was truth to all this. But the deeper truth was much worse. The deeper truth was that I felt as though I’d been caught doing something very bad, even if I didn’t understand what the bad thing was, exactly, or what the rationale was for its badness. I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels whenever someone attacks or criticizes her mothering. I felt angry. I felt embarrassed. But beneath all that, I felt ashamed.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“As is the case with so many aspects of parenthood, a woman’s staying home is often talked about as a deliberate choice, an issue that’s black and white, either/or. The choice is assumed to tell the world something about who we are and what we value: A partnered, working mother might love her children, but not quite enough to prioritize them above her career. A stay-at-home mother might be intelligent and educated and capable, but not quite enough to go out and hack it in the world beyond the nursery. The reality for me was that my balance of work and parenthood was always more improvised than decided, always more a response to circumstance and lack of alternatives than dogma.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“In trying to promote a spirit of acceptance, it has become common to say things like, “Every mom makes the best choice for her family.” Maybe. Another way to look at it is that we each get to choose from a handful of lousy options, then we try to make the choice go down easier by telling ourselves that what we chose makes us unique and special, better than those who chose a different way.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Tiff’s allowing her kids the luxury of watching television brought to mind a dinner Pete, the kids, and I went to with a few other couples and their kids. We were at a restaurant where the service was friendly but slow, and after five minutes, all of our kids were growing restless. My husband and I reached for our iPhones, because years earlier we’d decided (or at least accepted) that we’d let our children play on screens while they waited for food in restaurants. Another couple, for reasons of civility or table manners or brain development, had a no-screens-at-the-table policy in effect, so instead they reached for the piles of toys they’d carried with them, in big tote bags brimming with markers and Play-Doh and Disney figurines. They poured these nondigital diversions onto the table, turning the place settings into an elevated rec room. Another couple at the table disapproved of both of these choices. They wanted their children to sit nicely and participate in the conversation. Mostly this meant their kids flopped around and played with the saltshakers and kicked each other’s knees. The one childless couple at the table grimaced at all of us. I could see them silently interrogating each other, trying to understand how it was possible that all six of their friends were such ineffectual parents. Everyone was tense and unhappy. Everyone felt watched and judged. Everyone was wondering who was doing it the right way. But worst of all, worse than the atmosphere of guardedness and anxiety, was the fact that no one was acknowledging any of it.

This, it turns out, is the most important rule of parenting as a competitive sport: Nobody ever, no matter what, admits to competing. We smile and nod and hold our judgments until we get home from the restaurant. We say things like, “There’s no single right way.” We say these things as we sip our drinks, and only when we get home do we say to our partner or the nearest person who will listen, “What the fuck are they doing with those kids?” Nothing is acknowledged. Nothing is discussed. And on and on the parenting game goes; it’s hard to win while pretending not to play.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Where did parental fear come from, and what were the forces that sustained it? How had a biological imperative become a labyrinth of societal anxieties? How had we managed to take this thing—raising a child—that’s already next to impossible, and make it even fucking harder?”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“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 lack of 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?”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“As Furedi explains it, in the modern American family, parents dissect almost every parenting act, even the most routine, analyzing it in minute detail, correlating it with a negative or a positive outcome, and endowing it with far-reaching implications for child development. “It is not surprising,” he writes, “that parents who are told that they possess this enormous power to do good and to do harm feel anxious and overwhelmed.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“When it comes to our current fears regarding unsupervised children, we see both versions of folk wisdom at work. In the sixties or seventies, a child could walk to school or wait in a car because people were better, the world less violent, we say. But also, parents were dumber. They simply didn’t know. Sure, parents used to leave kids on their own, but they also let them drink Kool-Aid by the vat and play with toy weapons the NRA might find a touch aggro. They let them build forts in the trunks of station wagons careening down the freeway or swim without sunscreen until their skin blistered. Parents let kids wait in cars because they were idiots. But also, on average, because it was safer, because people were better then, gentler, less monstrous. It sounds so nice and pleasant, this safer, simpler past. It sounds almost too good to be true.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“With each of these parental fixations, the object of fear correlates less to the level of risk than to parents’ ability (or perceived ability) to exert control over the outcome. If you are a Puritan parent, why fret over the very significant possibility that your children will perish by contagion when you lack any knowledge or medicine to manage this risk? Better to worry about moral corruption and spiritual goodness, outcomes one might hope to influence—it’s the college admissions thing with the hereafter in place of Stanford. Likewise, today’s parents and parenting experts tend not to focus on many of the very daunting problems facing our children when those problems are beyond the scope of an individual’s influence.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Are you afraid someone will hurt them?” I asked.

She lifted her fork, paused for a moment, seemed to be considering. “No,” she said. “Well … I don’t know. I guess it’s other people. I worry that if I let them out of my sight, other people will see us and think I’m doing something wrong. I feel like it doesn’t matter what I think; that if other people think I’m doing something dangerous, then it’s dangerous. I suppose I can’t quite tell where my own anxieties end and other people’s begin. I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Sarnecka summarizes the findings this way: People don’t think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Fear and judgment form a kind of negative feedback loop. Parents seem to have become more judgmental of parents’ not watching their children. To justify their moral outrage, they form a belief that an unsupervised child is at risk, and then the perception of increased risk intensifies their moral judgment yet again.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“At some point very early in my life, it was impressed upon me that the worst thing a human being could endure was the loss of a child, that there is no cost too high to pay if it protects one’s child from harm. I never questioned or doubted this assertion. But what happens when this same way of thinking is used to shape policy and law?”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“I saw what was happening, the way my privilege was shielding me from the more unpleasant elements of the process, and a part of me recognized that it was wrong to quietly and gratefully accept this protection. Another, stronger part of me was fine with this. I was too scared to choose fairness over my being able to avoid being fingerprinted or having to wait for hours alone in a cell while my case was processed.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“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 and wrong. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings were facts, and such “facts” often led to disapproval and judgment.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“As Redleaf sees it, the biggest problem is that individuals, the people who called the police on Debra Harrell, are trusting a system that is inherently biased (as most systems are in this country) against poor people and people of color.

“There’s an assumption,” Redleaf told me, “among the general public, that it’s always better to make a call, even if you’re not sure what you’re seeing, because these people are professionals and if there was no real neglect, then the system will sort it out. Well, what we find is, they often get it wrong when they try to sort it out. The caseworkers at protection agencies aren’t licensed social workers. They often have minimal training. Police certainly aren’t experts on parenting or childcare. So basically we as a society have entrusted people who have no real training or serious knowledge about children and families with critical issues involving children. And they are making decisions about who gets to be a parent and who gets to raise their children and whether you’ll be labeled a child-abuser and unable to work.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“When you make it a crime to let your child play in a park or wait in a car,” Pimentel says, “you’re saying that good parenting is the kind of parenting practiced by affluent white people in suburban America at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“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 going shopping or having an affair. I’ll admit it—I love this finding. I relish the way it makes plain and undeniable something we all sort of know but aren’t supposed to say: We might accept that mothers occasionally want to do other things besides mothering, that they might want to have a career, a social life, a full human existence. But we don’t like it. We hate it, in fact. A father who is distracted for a few minutes by his myriad interests and obligations in the world of adult interactions is being, well, a father. A mother who does the same is failing her children.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Middle- and upper-middle-class mothers can be excoriated for failing to appreciate the support that so many others lack. Working-class and poor mothers can be pilloried for their ignorance and inattentiveness and inability to provide the kind of care middle-class children receive. And those who criticize them can rest assured it’s not women they hate, or even mothers; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We hate poor, lazy mothers. We hate rich, selfish mothers. We hate mothers who have no choice but to work, but also mothers who don’t need to work and want to do so.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Yes. Let’s be honest. I’m a privileged white woman who left her kids in a $30,000 minivan watching Dora the Explorer to go in for a Starbucks. Is there any clearer picture of privilege than that? But no matter what color you are, no matter how much money you have, you don’t deserve to be harassed for making a rational parenting choice.”

It’s funny, but in all the time that had passed, I had never thought about what was happening in quite those terms—as harassment. When a person intimidates, insults, verbally abuses, or demeans a woman on the street, in the bedroom, at the office, in the classroom, it’s harassment. When a woman is intimidated or insulted or abused because of the way she dresses or her sexual habits or her outspokenness on social media, she is experiencing harassment. But when a mother is intimidated, insulted, abused, or demeaned because of the way she is mothering, we call it concern or, at worst, nosiness. A mother, apparently, cannot be harassed. A mother can only be corrected.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“For six years, I’d assumed this was an inevitable transformation, an inherent part of parenthood. It seemed to be what most parents (but especially women) did, moving their children to the absolute center of their lives and pushing everything else—marriage, friendship, civic engagement, creative work—out to the distant edges where maybe, possibly, it could be revisited in fifteen or twenty years. Or at least, I thought it was parenthood we were moving to the center, but what if that was only part of it? What if the thing taking up so much space was not the fact of parenthood itself, the actual relationship with our children, but the feeling surrounding that relationship, the fearful feeling that we could never quite do enough?”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“Feminists frequently debate which elements of systemic and internalized sexism most need to change in order for more women to run for political office or rise to the top of their companies or colonize professions from which they’ve been historically excluded. Undoubtedly, there are many. But maybe not expecting and encouraging women to worry about every fucking thing that happens in their household might be a solid place to start.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Kim Brooks
“How did you get through it?” I asked her. I was hoping she was going to recommend a book, a pill, some quick fix to make this feeling of inadequacy go away.

Instead, she looked at me kindly, quite earnestly, and said, “You know, I think after years and years, I learned to stop giving a fuck. If people I knew, friends or relatives or strangers or whoever, had an opinion about what kind of mother I was or wasn’t, if they thought I was making mistakes, or doing things the wrong way, being too this or too that, being selfish by not giving all of myself to my kids, I eventually decided, fuck ’em. I’m doing the best I can in a culture that offers parents little material or emotional support. If people have a problem with the way I’m doing it, fuck every last one of them. And it’s funny—that anger—that was what got me to a place where I could finally stop caring and enjoy the little monsters. That’s when I started feeling better.”
Kim Brooks, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear


Reading Progress

July 28, 2018 – Shelved
September 9, 2018 – Started Reading
September 10, 2018 –
50.0% "This book is amazing and terrifying and so important."
September 10, 2018 – Finished Reading

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