Hops and Skips

Recommended Read: Small Animals by Kim Brooks

I checked out Kim Brooks’ Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear based on the recommendation of another parent librarian. One hears stories of parents who were cited, fined, or even arrested for such things as letting their kids walk home alone, ride the subway by themselves, or leaving them outside a restaurant

Chances are, if you clicked through to those articles and skimmed the circumstances, you immediately formed a response to each story. That’s just what happens when it comes to parenting – no one is apathetic about it; everyone has an opinion. There will never be a “general consensus” about parenthood, because it’s too large, too complex, and too personal a topic to ever simplify to begin with. 

Kim Brooks’ story is similar to those examples – in 2011, while visiting her parents in Virginia, she left her 4-year-old son locked in the car as she ran into Target for a brief errand. She thought nothing of it, flew home to Chicago a few hours later… and was met by her husband at the airport who notified her that, in the short duration of her flight, all hell had broken loose. The police had shown up at her parents’ front door demanding an explanation; an unknown citizen had videoed her son alone in the car and reported the situation and license plate number (of her mother’s car she was driving) to the police. What followed was a 2-year legal battle that involved the hiring of lawyers, an outstanding warrant for arrest, a court date, and mandatory community service.

Understandably, Brooks felt a lot of conflicting emotion following this experience. Small Animals is her attempt to navigate the fall-out from this experience.

“For many parents today from the middle class and above, caring for children is not an obligation or a necessity, but a long-anticipated life decision… and because we have our children later, because we have fewer of them, because many of us really, really want children if and when we have them, our identification with both the parent-child relationship and the work that parenting entails takes on enormous significance.”

We live in a society that provides everyone a forum to share their experience and express their opinion should they feel the need. And as Americans, we also live in a society that promotes and rewards individuality. So not only does everyone feel entitled to their opinion (which is generally not a problem), people usually believe their opinion is the RIGHT one, and it’s not hard to find a confirmation bias that only strengthens that belief. (This is often what becomes a problem.)

This book’s purpose is not to justify the author’s actions (though she does, naturally, share her perspective and reasoning). Instead, she uses this triggering experience to explore the social history and context to attempt to answer the question: “How on earth did we, as society, get here?” It’s hard to deny that parenting and childhood thirty years ago looks very different than in the present; today, we live in fear of the “coulds” and “ifs.” Today’s adults enter parenthood with a very different remembered experience of childhood than what their children end up experiencing, so where did this disconnect come from, if the same players are involved? What happened to us and to society from then until now to change the norm so drastically?

“If parenthood is no longer just a relationship or a part of ‘ordinary life’ but instead a new kind of secular religion, then true tolerance of each other’s parenting differences becomes a lot more complicated and a lot less common.”

For this exploration of ideas, Brooks does an amazing job of tracking the headline trends and influences of society. I’d argue that, overall, the purpose of this book is not to start a debate on our own personal viewpoints but instead to launch a reflection and discussion on how our roles and expectations as parents are influenced, how they’ve changed over time, and how much individual control we have over our own norms and experiences. Because to me, the biggest talking point of Small Animals isn’t the right or wrong of one parent’s opinions or actions over another’s; it’s the power a stranger’s perception or judgment can have over what was once a private, individual experience. 

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