A new book by Kim Brooks confronts parents’ responsibility to assess risk on behalf of our kids
Kim Brooks’ new book, Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, has only been on sale since last month, but her story has been causing a stir since 2014, when Brooks wrote about the cool, overcast day when she left her four-year-old son alone in the car in a Target parking lot while she ran in to buy him a pair of headphones. During the ten minutes Brooks was in the store, a passerby noticed her son in the car and called the police. Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Though her case was eventually dismissed in exchange for 100 hours of community service, the sting of that day still lingers seven years later. “I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels whenever someone attacks or criticizes her mothering,” she writes in Small Animals. “I felt angry. I felt embarrassed. But beneath all that, I felt ashamed.”
Brooks recounts the incident and its aftermath in such meticulous, suspenseful detail that it’s hard not to imagine yourself in a similar situation when, frazzled by responsibility and pressured by time, you make a split-second decision and hope you get it right. As parents, our job is to constantly assess risk on behalf of our children and ourselves; with so many choices flying at us all day, our batting average is necessarily imperfect. And mothers, Brooks points out by citing experiments conducted at University of California, Irvine, are prone to extra scrutiny and judgment. This is the deeper, more troubling message in her book. “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,” she writes. “A mother who does the same is failing her children.”
In the second half of the book, Brooks brings in stories of other mothers who left their children unattended and were accused of child endangerment or neglect, including a single mom in Atlanta who allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in a park less than a mile away from the McDonald’s where she worked and the self-proclaimed “terrible Starbucks mom” who left her three kids in her minivan with the sliding door open while she went in for a latte. As little as a generation ago, these choices would have been seen as normal, rational parenting decisions. Today, in many states, they’re against the law.
Brooks argues, as do the panoply of child psychologists and researchers she quotes in Small Animals, that these cases are symptomatic of Americans’ proclivity for overparenting. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child cannot be out of an adult’s sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision,” Lenore Skenazy, a free-range parenting expert, tells Brooks. The misperception flourishes despite the fact that child abductions and molestations have decreased dramatically over the past generation, and that, according to UC Irvine cognitive scientist Barbara Sarnecka, “the greatest risk to children in America right now is not strangers and not pedophiles and not overheating cars, but obesity and all the health disorders related to it,” including Type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
Still, fear is palpable on practically every page of…
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