Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear


This is not a very death-defying photo, but most of the real hijinks happen, almost by definition, out of my line of sight.

(NB: This is one I listened to as an audiobook so I couldn’t mark it up or copy down passages quickly enough. So quotations here were either hunted down online or are from excerpts and interviews that jive with the book.)

This fall as I slowly set out on running again after a long pregnancy/physical therapy hiatus, I listened avidly to Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of FearI found the book by turns mesmerizing, validating, challenging. In an NPR interview this summer, author Kim Brooks argues:

“We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression. Statistically speaking, according to the writer Warwick Cairns, you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point.”

Look, I am Anxiety Girl. I am only just now coming to realize that my dread when my toddler perches too long at the top of a slide isn’t normal, that my husband, for instance, doesn’t involuntarily imagine one of our kids’ heads busting open every time he evaluates a risk. I am afraid pretty much all of the time, and have been as long as I can remember. And I have been guilty of spreading the fear, of striking up playground conversation in which I share the haunting gem that if you slide down the slide with your kid you could break her leg, for instance.

And once I read this book and was encouraged to think about the role fear plays in parenthood among my peer set, it got me thinking about this sort of small talk, which is not uncommon. News of freak occurrences is just so readily available to us — it’s one of the reasons I ditched Facebook. (Instagram, for all its timesuck potential, at least doesn’t encourage the wildfire spread of unlikely phobias.)

I tried to talk to my mom about my reading. We are worrywart kindred spirits, and when I talked about feeling like I should give my kids a bit more freedom, a little less supervision, slightly more porous boundaries, she answered, “Yes, but I just watched something on Elizabeth Smart and I couldn’t live with myself if something like that happened to one of my children.”

YES. But here’s the thing — this scenario illustrates Brooks’s hypothesis perfectly: Elizabeth Smart wasn’t left unsupervised and then abducted. She was kidnapped when a man stole her from her bedroom, a hazard we all unthinkingly run in putting our kids to bed each night. The reason this fear haunts our collective psyches is because the story is so publicized, vivid, and sensational. Brooks identifies this kind of thing as the availability heuristic and cites it as one reason we fear improbable, vivid scenarios above mundane, more likely tragedies: a freak car crash, a kid choking to death on her lunch, my non-eaters slowly liquefying their bones on their Goldfish-only diet.

Brooks points out that fear is, duh, not harmless, even if the things we fear are mostly baseless or unlikely. Fear takes up space in your mind that might be given over to other worthier thoughts. Maintaining fear consumes energy, leaving you edgy and exhausted in protecting your child day in and day out from perceived threats. She’s writing to a secular audience, but I’ll add that cultivating fear weakens my reliance on God, leaving me trying to claw all possibilities into my control as the only way to keep us safe, rather than resting in God’s terrifying provision. Ultimately, fear run rampant builds up the kind of culture of fear that sent Brooks to court for contributing to the delinquency of a minor just because she let her four-year-old stay in the car during a quick errand.

Every time I click through to a story on how a piece of furniture crushed a toddler, I am making a choice to entertain that fear. Every time I reign my kid’s explorations in, I build up a culture of fear, where it’s harder and harder for other mothers to make choices to give their children a little independence.

I don’t want to put my head in the sand and refuse to accept that the world is a dangerous place, my children heartstoppingly small and vulnerable little critters. But neither do I want to continue as a mindless consumer of fear, an anxiety junkie swapping horror stories at preschool drop off and looking askance at any mother who weighs the risks differently than I do.

I’ve had this conversation before, but I think especially for those of us with more than one or two children, those of us who consider ourselves home educators or homemakers as well as stay-at-home mothers, sooner or later we are going to have to confront the incompatibility between upper-middle-class, full-time helicopter parenting and a sort of older model of mothering. It’s just logistically impossible to have an eye on all the kids, all the time, when there are three or five or six of them, when one of them needs a reading lesson, when you’re pregnant and need a nap yourself. In the same NPR interview, Brooks observes this disparity, noting, “I think that the expectation on parents has changed from giving your children shelter, and love, and support, and guidance, to this idea that observation and structure and sort of watching them all the time — that that’s what a good parent does.”

We all know what she’s talking about. Even my most excellent mother, she of the Elizabeth Smart fears, let me do things that aren’t always kosher today: to haunt the treehouse out of her line of sight at 5 or 6, to wander the woods a block up the street at 10 or so, to walk to the bus stop in pitch dark as a 90-pound high schooler. She did not interfere with the useless and messy things I created from glue and trash, nor did she monitor my reading more than to let me summarize it in mind-numbing detail to her. And how much more of the world was open to children of her generation!

So, here are a list of things I ( am trying to) fear more than child abduction or my kid getting run over by a car:

  • One of my kids having a panic attack at college because she can’t handle the unfamiliar weight of responsibility.
  • One of my kids developing diabetes because I never let them play outside unsupervised
  • One of my kids being the kind of middle schooler who sheds friends even faster than outgrown shoes because she can’t negotiate disagreements without a parent stepping in.
  • One of my kids slipping into a spiral of depression when she doesn’t get the job/college acceptance/team slot because I’ve protected her from small failures so that she’s never developed resilience.
  • One of my kids dying in an equally improbable natural disaster because he has no sense of independence to fall back on.

And I’m trying to take heart. To remember that many of the mothers I admire have slightly older self-sufficient children who manage independence and responsibilities beautifully, but that maybe that transition was not easy or automatic for my friends. To plot out the steps between a babyhood snuggled against my chest and a childhood of wonder and freedom and security and adventure, knowing that with my personality and my cultural milieu, such a transformation isn’t inevitable. To refuse to judge the mother of the twelve-year-old at the library (WAIT, IS HE TEN?!) as he gets onto his bike and pedals off by himself alone, even if I think to myself: well, at least he’s wearing a helmet.

6 thoughts on “Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear

  1. I’m going to have to file this away for future parenthood reference. I was just reading a book explaining some of the (actually not millennial, but Gen Z) college uproars being the result of coddling and actually encouraging depressive thinking. I’m thinking Kim Brooks may have been quoted in this book, certainly others and studies that were similar. I’m sure it is a cultural thing. But even on top of that, wow, I think my family just has a fear gene on top of that (me especially, I operate on the “what if” principle of avoidance) for some reason.


    • Yes, I think the coddling can be really detrimental. I know KB quoted All Joy, No Fun by Jennifer Senior, which is a really amazing book about what parenting is in our culture and why it’s both the best thing we ever do and total drudgery.


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