AS THE FATHER of a toddler, I am uncomfortably familiar with parenting in an age of fear. I bristle when my son runs (always without looking) out of my sight, even though I know that parents overestimate the risks to their children's safety. And while I'm familiar with the reasons that parents shouldn't always solve their children's problems for them, I confess that when some kid snatches something from my son, I have to suppress the instinct to intervene.
So I looked forward to reading Kim Brooks' Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, and the book did not disappoint. Brooks is a mother of two who, faced with a time crunch and an uncooperative 3-year-old, went into a Target store for around 10 minutes while her child played in the car on a tablet. A "concerned citizen" saw her leave the car without her kid, snapped a photo, and called the police. In the world we live in, Brooks was seen as the one in the wrong; the busybody who called the cops was just doing the right thing.
Small Animals is Brooks' attempt to figure out what happened, not just to her but to us. Intertwined with her own story, told from incident to aftermath, she talks with people who know something about parenting in this fearful culture. They include a social worker, a cognitive psychologist who has studied how parents appraise risk, a lawyer, and many parents--including Reason columnist Lenore Skenazy--who have similarly been accused of (and in some cases arrested for) supposed parental negligence.
Two things must be said at the outset. First, Brooks is not writing simply to vent her frustrations or shock readers with stories about "parents and cops these days." She really is trying, as sympathetically as possible, to understand the modern trend of fearful parenting. Second, she does not hold herself above the trends she laments. Some of the most intriguing and relatable parts of the book come when she discusses her own internal tensions--knowing how absurd some parental worries are while not being able to free oneself from them.
For instance, after an initial chapter rehearsing the incident that led to the book, she recalls her days as a mother-to-be. This, she tells us, is where it started. Every doctor's visit or talk with experienced parents turned into advice sessions of stern do's and don'ts. Doctors gave her pamphlets; parents recommended the latest manuals. What Brooks realized only afterward is that "knowing, as anyone with an anxiety disorder can tell...