By Leslie Lindsay
More than a parenting book, more than a memoir, and way more than just a ‘rant,’ SMALL ANIMALS: Parenthood in the Age of Fear might be essential reading for any parent of any age child.
On a crisp March morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision (or a lapse in judgement, if we’re splitting hairs) to leave her 4 year-old son unattended in a parked, locked car in a Target parking lot. She was stressed and anxious about catching a flight back home to Chicago and her son was happily playing a video game. The errand would take just minutes and she’d be right back. When she returned, a woman was video-taping her son and vehicle with a cell phone. That woman shared the video with the local authorities and hours later, Brooks was under investigation.
Combining investigative journalism with interviews of other parents, experts, and interweaving research on what makes a ‘good parent,’ the author delves into American’s obsession with fear and anxiety, and also competitiveness.
I was reading and nodding in agreement with much of what the author has to say. Why can’t we let our children play at friendly neighborhood park while we are home, but maybe otherwise occupied (or working from home)? What happened to childhood when we allowed children to play and explore and manage their own feelings, their own sense of agency? Why is everything so scheduled? Those were the things I was absolutely invested in reading more about.
SMALL ANIMALS: Parenthood in the Age of Fear is absolutely illuminating and provocative and most definitely led me down the path of thoughtful reflection. In fact, I found myself looking up cases and statistics mentioned in the narrative. I thought about my parenting actions and choices for several days after finishing this book and probably will continue to do so. In that sense, SMALL ANIMALS did its job.
This is a call-to-action type read, it’s equal parts horrifying and affirming, and at times, funny.
Please join me in welcoming Kim Brooks to the author interview series.
Kim, I have been thinking and thinking about this book since I read the last page three days ago. And here’s why: it makes sense. It worries me. It’s authentic. You were spurred to write SMALL ANIMALS after that event in the Target parking lot. Instead of asking you to rehash that yet again, I am curious about when it dawned on you to write about it?
Writing for me is about figuring things out, trying to understand myself and the world, trying to make sense of things that seem at first inscrutable or strange. This thing that happened to me was one of the strangest things I’d experienced, so I think it occurred to me very quickly to write about it. That said, I knew it would be impossible to see it clearly while it was happening and I knew it would be unwise to publish anything about it until the legal element had been resolved. So I forced myself to wait quite a while, which I think in the end allowed me to approach it with more clarity and perspective.
“Small Animals interrogates how we weigh risk as parents, how we judge one another’s parenting and what the costs might be–not just to parents, but to children, too–of a culture of constant surveillance.”
―New York Times Book Review
Ironically, I was reading SMALL ANIMALS during my daughter’s soccer practice. In a parked car. On a comfortable fall evening. The windows were down. There was my daughter on the soccer field juggling and shooting with a bunch of other girls her age and coach who was…somewhere. I chuckled thinking about what this means. I am a helicopter parent because I am there, in the parking lot? Does that make me paranoid? I am a ‘bad parent’ because I wasn’t, say, on the soccer field with her? Does my daughter’s age matter?
This is the kind of question I’m asked a lot and it’s a question that I find I can only respond to with a few questions of my own. What is a “bad parent?” When and how did “good parenting” become dependent on watching, monitoring, and maintaining minimal physical distance from our children, as opposed to say, how much we talk to them or offer them emotional support or empathy or what we teach them or how we relate to them? Why do we assume that kids need to be watched and that watching them is somehow helping them? Why is it that so many people now believe a child who is not being watched is a child in peril? I don’t think we can make value judgements about our own or anyone’s “goodness” as a parent until we examine the assumptions underlying our values around parenthood and childhood.
Much of what I think SMALL ANIMALS focuses on is fear and anxiety and competitiveness in our parenting culture. This worries and saddens me. When I was a kid—and I’ve had this conversation with other parents—we didn’t live this way. At least it didn’t seem that way. We played outside unsupervised, rode bikes till the street lights came on, walked to school. Not anymore. Why is that?
I think there are many factors at play here, and I explore them in my book: The media’s obsession with rare, violent acts against kids, the litigiousness of our culture, social media and the rise of surveillance culture, a breakdown of community and communal responsibility for child rearing. But the one factor I always like to raise because I don’t think it’s being discussed much is the new and very regressive anti-woman ideology of motherhood, an ideology that intensified just after women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970’s and 80’s. I think we still have an incredible amount of ambivalence around women doing non-care-taking work. What better way to undermine women’s autonomy and power outside the home than to radically expand the job description of good motherhood. If a good mother is a mother who never takes her eyes off her child or pays someone else to never take their eyes off them, then the only women who can be good mothers are stay-at-home mothers or extremely wealthy mothers who can hire full-time help. I find that interesting.
My dad and I were having a similar conversation recently. He kept saying, “Maybe the girls can go practice tennis at some nearby courts.” I am thinking, “Okay. I’ll have to find the time for them to do that, round up a friend or two for them to play doubles, prepare snacks and drinks, clear my schedule for a bit, drive them to the courts, and wait.” I’m also thinking: it might be hard to find friends who are available at the exact same time because everyone is so busy. It’s easier just to not. What or how do we reconcile the differences between generations?
I’d suggest asking your dad if he could organize this for you. We have this strange and quite new idea now that parents are supposed to provide kids with everything they need to grow into healthy, happy adults. The burden and responsibility used to be shared by grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, coaches, teachers, shop-keepers. I’ve interviewed child psychologists and about the mental health crisis for children and they say one of the things kids report needing most is more positive relationships with adults who aren’t their parents.
I started speculating in the change in dynamics, the busyness of everything, and our generation versus our parents (and our kids’). My conclusion is that back in the 50s and 60s (and even into the 70s and 80s), fewer women/mothers worked outside of the home. They were there, doing what needed to be done (household chores, errands, raising children), and the kids were safe with the neighborhood network of mothers keeping eyes on everyone. But now, many mothers work, either outside of the home, or from home (hello, writers) and it’s not always as easy to allow kids to play baseball in the backyard or ride scooters on the cul-de-sac. Mothers have to work around their [work] schedules and maybe the kids’ sports and extracurricular activities. Is that the way you see it, too? Is there something else?
That’s pretty much how I see it, too.
I want to loop back to your event in that parking lot. How does Felix feel about it now that he’s much older? How—or has?–this affected him?
He very much appreciates having more independence than most kids his age and he understands this is partly in due to my experience and my book. At the same time, like most children of writers, I’m sure he wishes I did something else. It’s not a lot of fun to have a writer in the family.
Before we go, I think it’s important to mention race and culture and privilege. There will be people who don’t have the resources—time, financial, legal, or mental—to successfully navigate a situation like yours. You touch on this a bit in SMALL ANIMALS, but could you expand a bit here?
Yes, this is very true. I write about the case of Debra Harrell, an African-American single mom whose experience was much more harrowing than mine. Our criminal justice system is rife with institutional racism and our society at large is one in which those with few economic resources are often abused and exploited. So anytime we criminalize a behavior that most people are doing (like taking your eyes off your children), people of color and poor people will suffer the most.
Kim, thank you so very much for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked about, but may have forgotten?
Nope! Thank you so much for reading and asking such thoughtful questions
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow me @leslielindsay1 on Instagram.
For more information, to connect with Kim Brooks via social media, or to purchase a copy of SMALL ANIMALS, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, an NPR Best Book of the Year, described by the National Book Review as “an impassioned, smart work of social criticism and a call for support and empathy.”
Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Magazine, Salon, Buzzfeed, and other publications. She has spoken as a guest on CBS This Morning, PBS Newshour, 20/20, NPR’s All Things Considered, Good Morning America, the Brian Lehr Show, and many other radio shows and podcasts. Her novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016. She lives in Chicago.
In addition to writing, Kim is available for speaking engagements, book club appearances, teaching, and one-on-one editorial services.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Author photo Sarah Shatz. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Please follow me @leslielindsay1 on Instagram]