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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Small Animals: Parenthood In the Age of Fear

The second I heard I heard about Kim Brooks' Small Animals: Parenthood In the Age of Fear, I knew I had to get it. It's not just because I am a new parent (well, kind of new), but also because I have strongly felt for some time that in our current time we parent through fear rather than through a desire to lead out kids to be self-determined. (See The Self-Driven Child, if you will.)

Just a couple of years ago, Kim Brooks ran a five minute errand into Target in a suburb of Virginia and left her four year old son in the car. It was a mild to cool day, she could see the car from the store, and he didn’t even notice how long she was gone since he was engrossed in his iPad. That one choice would lead to a years-long fight with the court and child welfare  systems from several states away that ended in Kim not being prosecuted but serving many hours in parenting classes. All because a “Good Samaritan” watched her, filmed her, and phoned the police over an action that is not, in fact, against the law. 

This begs bigger questions in our society about fear-based parenting, the motherhood competition, and how we now view parenting as a cross between a competitive sport and a job. In the first chapter, Kim lays out her story. In the second, she explores deeper questions of why we live in a parenting culture of fear, beginning in pregnancy. It is a fear that grips mostly women, and this theme travels into the third chapter which focuses on the history of that fear and how it primarily affects mothers. The rest of the book explores these themes in more depth as well as the outcome of her own case, including the second-to-last chapter in which Brooks comes to the conclusion that all of this fear-based parenting is creating a generation of guinea pigs -- we don't know how people will turn out when a generation of helicopter parenting has prevented them from ever taking risks. (I can hypothesize on this, and it's not pretty.)

This book is so very important reading for every single person in this society, be you a parent or not. I have been flabbergasted since long before I became a mother how fear-based we truly are as a society. The statistics of stranger danger are sobering because so few children are absucted by strangers. As Brooks repeats throughout this book, the probability isn’t nil, which means that it is absolutely a possibility, but we find ourselves more worried about things that aren’t much of a problem to avoid being worried about things that are. This reflects the research; I recently read a paper that clearly found that humans in the western world tend to worry about things that have a small probability of happening but are in control of humans, such as kidnapping and terrorist attacks, but tend to not think often of things that are more likely to happen through chance and the environment, such as hurricanes and fires. The things I find myself most concerned about for my own child are choking, lead, and subway crashes. (I admit the last one is a bit less probable than I think, but it IS the MTA.) 

I find myself in Brooks’ camp. On one hand, we know better so we do better — with things like car seat safety, SIDS, early allergen exposure. But that doesn't apply to everything. Brooks discusses the child abduction craze of the 1980’s, which I not only remember well, but has had shape my own fears and anxieties. Because it was brought so publicly to the forefront, we tend to over-rationalize stranger abduction and ignore more important statistics such as according to RAINN, 92% of minors who are sexually abused know their abuser. This is convenient to forget when it’s someone we know and trust. We also underestimate actual risks, such as car accidents. People are so afraid of things that are plausible but not likely and less concerned about the fact that over 1600 children each year die in car accidents and another 2.35 million are injured or disabled. You are far more likely to be in this situation than someone taking your child from a parked vehicle. However, everyone has an anecdote, now, don't they?

I find it so interesting how my husband and I have described our parenting with all of these adjectives: lazy, ignorant, hands-off. When you put it in the context of the over-vigilance that is expected in 2018, where our children are never supposed to be left alone and they need to be monitored so that they never get hurt at the expense of exploration and adventure, it’s downright neglectful. But we are far from it. We just expect that our child will be independent, playful, adventurous, and brave. So far, so good. 

However, when I explain this to people who are around us, including my own parents, what they say and what they do are different. Thy say, “That’s so great,” and what they do is helicopter my kid. They say they love our attitude, but then they say, “Watch his head!” Or, “He’s stuck!” Or, “Can he do that?” In theory they like the idea of my child learning for himself, but in practice we have become an overbearing, controlling society regarding children. I find myself more frustrated with the need to control my child's every move than I am with the fact that my child is stuck in the first place. We call it hands-off parenting, and it really, really, really bothers most people.

This book is so very important for everyone to read, and I will add it to my arsenal of books that I send off to my new-parent (and hell, maybe even my old-parent) friends. Along with The Gardener and the Carpenter, The Scientist in the Crib, The Importance of Being Little, and The Self-Driven Child, this is one of the best books on parenting I can recommend. If you want your child to be smarter, put down the books that claim to make them so -- they are bullshit. What will make your child smarter is allowing them to explore, create, and just be.

Will I be a free range parent? You betcha. 

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