Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear

February 5, 2019 - 6 minutes read

By Kim Brooks

A blurb on the cover of Kim Brooks’ Small Animals praised the book as “the most important book on parenting that you will ever read.” While I disagree with that statement, I admit the book intrigued me and made me think.

We hear many people of older generations talk about the freedoms of their childhoods and despairing that today’s young children do not have the same freedoms and opportunities to play outside, to play unsupervised, to explore nature, to learn to compromise, fight their own battles, and problem-solve with peers. Small Animals broaches these topics and points out that today’s parenting methods are fear-based.

The author begins by relating an incident that caused her to be arrested when she left her 4-year-old son in her car untended for only a few minutes while she ran an errand. Someone took a video of her leaving the car and of her son as he played on an iPad while waiting. The video was sent to the police of the small town where Brooks was visiting her parents. Using her experience, Brooks began to explore the idea of how we parent today, why so much of today’s parenting is fear-based, and what the impacts are on the children who experience such parenting.

One section of the book really struck me. Brooks was speaking to a Barbara Sarnecka, social scientist at UC-Irvine, about internal and external loci of control. Sarnecka said that “The more you feel in control, the happier you usually are. So that’s called having an internal locus of control.” The statement caused Brooks to comment, “If what you say is true, then children must be miserable these days. They have so little control over their time. They’re so structured. We take them to school. We take the them to lessons. We take them to summer camp. We take them to playdates. They get to control when they go to the toilet and that’s about it.”

Sarnecka responds, “…We never even let them go to the store to get a loaf of bread because it is too dangerous. So they never have the ability to do the right or the wrong thing…They are being raised like veal, never allowed to take any risks or to be responsible or independent in any way. Or to develop a feeling of worth, of resiliency, of efficacy. Of self-confidence or self-worth or of the excitement of life.”

There is more of course, from the pressures and judgments put upon expectant moms and new moms regarding their child-rearing philosophies and practices; to how feelings of failure in new moms lead to depression and guilt; to how quickly people in general judge moms as they watch them in stores, in parks, etc. deal with their children; to how much more harshly moms in poverty, single moms, and moms that are not white are judged and convicted of abuse and neglect; to the competition among parents as they compare their children to others or as they listen to their children being compared to someone else’s child; to the pressure parents feel to fill up a child’s schedule with lessons of all kinds, seldom giving them free time to play and explore on their own. Brooks points out that parents fear they are doing an injustice to their children and their children’s futures if they don’t “start them early.”

Another paragraph that made an impression stated, “…having them [children] struggle now is better than having them struggle for the first time when they’re ten or twelve…I mean, the experience of going off to college or moving away from home for the first time is hard enough; it should not also be the first time a child learns that sometimes in life, you struggle.”

Readers’ reactions to the book will differ, depending on their age, experiences, and philosophies of child rearing. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Brooks about fear for our children’s safety and futures, the impact those fears have had on the definition of “good parenting,” and how the resulting changes have impacted parents, children, and the structure of society are worth consideration.

So, while it is probably not the best book on parenting I have ever read, it certainly is one that provokes food for thought and discussion.

Reviewed by: Joyce Johanson