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Book Summary: Small Animals – Parenthood in the Age of Fear

Small Animals (2018), explores how parenthood has become an exercise in fear, anxiety and constant intervention. Drawing from the author’s own parenting experiences, it explores how our perceptions of risk have become so distorted that we intervene, meddle, watch and manage our children’s lives at the cost of their freedom, fun and health.

Content Summary

Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Understand the rise of fearful parenting and its impacts.
The author was arrested for leaving her son alone in a car for a few minutes, despite there being little apparent risk.
Reactions to the author’s incident were mixed and often hostile, and she was left feeling a sense of shame.
Parenting has become much more anxious and hands-on as our attitudes toward having children have changed.
The fears of parents in the United States are all too often misplaced and focused on things that are low risk.
We manufacture fears to justify moral judgments about other parents who we believe are inadequate.
Poorer mothers are more likely to be at risk of societal judgments about parenting decisions.
Parents are not giving their children the freedom that they need to have fun and learn how to be adults.
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Read an Excerpt


Biographies, Memoirs, Community, Culture, Parenting, Motherhood, Nonfiction, Autobiography, Memoir, Adult, Biography, Family, Biography Memoir, Sociology, Psychology

Who is it for?

  • Parents who value their children’s independence and freedom
  • New parents
  • Anyone interested in how fear and moral judgments are entwined in today’s society

What’s in it for me? Understand the rise of fearful parenting and its impacts.

All parents feel profound fear at one point or another – fears about illnesses or accidents, or simply fears for the future. It’s a natural part of being a parent, we tell ourselves. But are these fears legitimate? And are they helping us protect our children, or are they actually hurting them?

A dramatic and impactful incident in her own life forced writer Kim Brooks to consider why parents in the United States today are so fearful and whether their fears are misplaced. Arrested for leaving her son alone in a car for a few minutes, in circumstances that she deemed safe and that led to no harm, she was prompted to reconsider everything she knew about parental fear and anxiety.

Perhaps the scary things we worry about, like kidnapping, are, in fact, highly unlikely, and we should be concentrating on far more common threats to physical and mental health. Perhaps something has gone wrong in recent decades, which has led to modern parents’ constant preoccupation with fears and anxieties that their own parents would have given less thought to.

These summaries offer a personal take on parenting in an age of anxiety, infusing personal experience with documentary evidence of the rise in fear and parenting that minimizes childhood freedoms. In these summaries, you’ll learn:

  • how unlikely it is for a kid to be kidnapped in public;
  • why our fears are often really camouflaged moral judgments about other parents; and
  • why poor mothers suffer the most from society’s judgments about parental behavior.

The author was arrested for leaving her son alone in a car for a few minutes, despite there being little apparent risk.

On an overcast day in March, 2011, the author was standing in line at the checkout counter of a Target store in a suburban strip mall in Richmond, Virginia. She was stressed – she had to catch a flight later that day with her two children. On top of that, she was a nervous flyer. As the cashier slowly scanned her items, she grew more and more anxious.

The author had taken what would prove to be a fateful decision. Outside, her four-year-old son was waiting in her car, alone. He was happily playing on an iPad. He hadn’t wanted to come with her into the store, so she had decided to leave him in the car. What could go wrong in a locked car in a quiet parking lot in a safe part of town? She’d avoid the hassle and potential tantrums involved in bringing him inside.

It was a cool day, with no risk of her son overheating. She’d child-locked the car and activated its alarm. He’d be safe for the five minutes it would take her to dash inside and buy the headphones that would help keep him quiet on their flight later that day, freeing her up to look after her baby.

Eventually, she paid for the headphones, dashed outside and breathed a sigh of relief as she returned to the car. Her son, engrossed in his game, barely acknowledged her presence when she climbed in and drove off.

But that evening, back in Chicago, she got a voicemail message from the local Richmond police force. While she was in Target, someone had seen her son alone in the car. Concerned for his safety, this person had filmed her son and called the police. When the author emerged from Target and drove away, the observer gave the police the car’s registration number.

Despite her son not having suffered any harm, nor even being exposed to any apparent risk, the author was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a charge used in cases where someone is accused of neglecting or exposing a child to harm. She had to employ a lawyer, travel back to Virginia and self-report for arrest.

Eventually, she reached a deal to perform 100 hours of community service back home, in return for not being prosecuted. The punishment was bearable. Far worse was the emotional impact the situation had on her.

Reactions to the author’s incident were mixed and often hostile, and she was left feeling a sense of shame.

After the incident, the author felt a mixture of emotions: shock, surprise and bewilderment about facing charges. But most of all, and not really understanding why, she felt shame.

Talking the situation through with her family, she couldn’t fully understand what the supposed threat to her son had been. Eventually, she figured that the police had felt that her son had been at risk of a potential kidnapping, a threat which seemed ridiculous to her.

The author knew that the risk of kidnapping was tiny compared to things like speeding cars, unfenced swimming pools and second-floor windows left wide open. In fact, the number of missing person reports concerning minors at the time was at a record low level. And out of all missing person cases, 96 percent involved runaways. Only 0.1 percent were a stereotypical, out-of-the-blue kidnapping.

Her sense of shame was compounded by people’s reactions. When she told her close friend and fellow-mother Tracy what had happened, Tracy became clearly uncomfortable and expressed little sympathy for the author’s situation, saying only that she wouldn’t have done the same.

The world is a crazy place, Tracy said. You never know who is out there. She didn’t think that the author was a bad mother, she said. She just thought the author had made a bad choice. The conversation left the author feeling judged and insecure in her decisions as a mother.

Some years later, the author wrote an essay for the website Salon, detailing her experience and reflecting on the different risks parents take. The reactions were mixed, with many readers agreeing that contemporary parenting involves a great deal of paranoia.

But many people were hugely critical. One wished a hearty “god bless” to the person who called the cops on her. Another questioned why the author ever had kids, if she didn’t want to be responsible and to parent them properly. Others said that what she did could have resulted in tragedy. Others simply called her a “piece of shit.”

The hostility was of a kind that you might think would be reserved for actions resulting in harm to a child. It seems that today, attitudes to parenting are infused with fear that is out of sync with rational appraisals of risk.

Parenting has become much more anxious and hands-on as our attitudes toward having children have changed.

Talk to your grandparent about their childhood memories, and they’ll likely recount tales that would seem completely unrealistic today.

The author’s father recalled his childhood in Utica, New York, in the fifties. His mother used to send him off to the store when he was just eight or nine. He fondly recalled picking up some bread, a pint of milk and a pack of smokes, remembering his sense of pride in returning home with the correct change and the required items.

What has caused the shift that has led to such independence and freedom being viewed as dangerous and has filled parenting with anxiety? Jennifer Senior, a writer about modern parenthood, theorizes that parenthood has become a choice in a way that it never was before. Only a century ago, adults had children because it was an economic necessity to do so, because it was customary or because it was seen as a moral obligation to their wider family and community.

It is only very recently that we have started to look at parenthood as a carefully thought-out decision, based on a desire for children, rather than a need for them. And perhaps as a result, our approach to parenting has changed. We are more hands-on and more anxious about whether we are making the right parenting decisions day-to-day.

It’s no surprise then that today, moms in America spend more time with their children than ever before, even though more moms than ever are also working.

The author talked to her own mother about how much things had changed. Her mother said that her own parents barely saw her during her childhood. They bought her a moped when she was 10, and she used to spend her days cruising around town on it. By contrast, the author’s experience of parenthood was akin to being a CEO of a small company. There was constantly something to do – playdates to arrange, birthday parties to plan and enrichment programs to apply for.

It seems that today, since parenting is largely a choice, the stakes have become higher. There is a special pressure to be a good parent, and that has translated into childhoods that are less free and more characterized by parental supervision and intervention.

The fears of parents in the United States are all too often misplaced and focused on things that are low risk.

Statistically, it would take around 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be kidnapped by a stranger. The abduction of a child from a locked car is fantastically rare.

The author started to get a better sense of this and other parenting risks after she talked to Lenore Skenazy, a well-known blogger, mom and founder of a movement called Free Range Kids.

Skenazy’s movement fights the view that children are in constant danger. She told the author that the riskiest thing the author had done was to put him in the car in the first place. In the United States, Skenazy said, 487 children were injured and three children died in a car accident every day in 2015, on average. If we really wanted to reduce risks to our children, we wouldn’t drive them anywhere. And yet we accept – or rather ignore – this risk, while the far more remote risk of kidnapping leads to shaming and prosecution. Why so?

One explanation for why minimal threats like kidnapping are so powerful in our imagination is the psychological phenomenon called the availability heuristic. Put simply, this is the tendency that people have to judge the likelihood of something happening not by rational thought, but by how easy it is to recall an example of the same thing happening.

The availability heuristic is a hangover from the age of hunter-gatherers, when it made perfect sense. If you remember your fellow hunter being eaten by a roaming lion on your usual hunting trail, it makes sense to fear meeting the same fate. In the age of mass media, it is less helpful.

American fears about kidnapping peaked during the early 1980s, after high-profile cases like the 1981 Florida abduction of six-year-old Adam Walsh, whose severed head would later be found in a drainage canal. Kidnapping was suddenly all over the news. One study conducted between 1986 and 1987 found that popular magazines in the United States published an average of one story per week about child kidnapping or missing children.

Never mind that the actual risk was tiny, that children were more likely to die choking on some food or object than from a brutal kidnapping. With these stories in the media, kidnapping shot to the highest spot in a 1986 list of national concerns, ahead of the threat of nuclear war and the spread of AIDS. It has stayed high up the list ever since.

We manufacture fears to justify moral judgments about other parents who we believe are inadequate.

A friend of the author’s once commented that he wouldn’t let his children out of his sight, not because he worried something would happen to them, but because he worried that someone would see him and judge his actions. Could it be, the author pondered, that fears about children’s safety are really moral judgments in disguise?

A 2016 study by Barbara W. Sarnecka of the University of California, Irvine, suggests the answer is yes.

Sarnecka created an experiment in which participants were asked to judge the morality and risk of different situations in which parents leave their children for a few minutes. For example, in one situation, a baby was left sleeping alone in a car in a cool underground parking lot. In another, an eight-year-old was left in Starbucks for an hour, a block away from her mother.

The reason the parent was absent varied. Sometimes the parent had been hit by a car and left unconscious. Other times, the parent was at work, relaxing or having an affair.

Unsurprisingly, participants’ judgment about whether the parent had done something immoral was impacted by their reason for being away. A parent having an affair was judged more harshly than one working or unconscious.

More surprising was that people’s assessment of risk was impacted by morality. That is, a child left alone in a car was judged to be at greater risk if her absent parent was meeting a lover than if the parent was lying unconscious. Sarnecka’s conclusion was clear. People’s moral judgment came first, and their assessment of risk followed accordingly.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University, agrees with this conclusion. When we decide that we think something or someone is morally wrong, he told the author, we realize that we need something to back that belief up. You can’t just say, “I morally disapprove of what you are doing,” so we fabricate danger to back up what is essentially a moral judgment. A politician with a prejudice against Mexican people can’t just come out and say it. So he says, “Mexicans are dangerous because they’re murderers and rapists. If you let them in, we’ll all be at risk.”

When we criticize parents for their choices, we often aren’t making fair assessments of the risks involved. We are simply judging those parents as bad mothers or fathers. But perhaps the opposite is true.

Poorer mothers are more likely to be at risk of societal judgments about parenting decisions.

As she heard stories of other parents arrested for similar reasons to her, the author came to realize that the cost of society’s fear and judgment toward mothers is borne disproportionately by the poor.

Consider Debra Harrell from North Augusta, Georgia. One day in the summer of 2014, a stranger noticed Harrell’s nine-year-old daughter alone and playing happily in a park and called the police, while Harrell was working at McDonald’s. Unable to pay for childcare during the long summer holidays, Harrell allowed her daughter to go to the park. It was in a safe neighborhood in a quiet, family-friendly town.

The park was full of children and adults, most of whom knew her daughter, and many of whom were friends. The daughter had a cell phone for emergencies, although Harrell couldn’t imagine anything worse happening than a scraped knee.

So Harrell was surprised to receive a call from the police. When she got to the station, she was told that she wasn’t allowed to see her daughter, who would be sent to a foster home. Harrell was charged with abandonment, on the grounds that her daughter was playing unsupervised in a crowded family park.

In a filmed interrogation that was later released to local news by the police, Harrell was practically lectured by a young policeman. “You’re her mother, aren’t you?” asked the officer. “You do understand that you are responsible for her well-being,” he said, while Harrell struggled to control herself. If you watch the tape, it’s as clear as day that the police officer was judging her as a parent.

Harrell was kept in jail for one day and charged with abandonment. Her daughter was kept in a group foster home for two weeks, not allowed to speak to her mother. For 14 nights, Harrell slept in her daughter’s bed, alone and crying.

Harrell’s case was eventually dropped, a result of pro bono legal support that she received after there was a public outcry at the release of her interrogation tape. But to this day, her daughter is still scared to go outside and walk down the street on her own.

The United States does not provide subsidized child care, mandatory parental leave, universal early years education or parental rights for flexibility in the workplace. And yet it has made it a crime for parents to take their eyes off their children. In effect, it has made it a crime to be poor.

Parents are not giving their children the freedom that they need to have fun and learn how to be adults.

If it’s a tough time to be a parent in America, it’s a terrible time to be a kid.

Talk to people older than 40 about their fondest childhood memories, and they’ll very likely tell tales of freedom. One of the author’s friends told her that when he was a child in 1970s California, he adored playing baseball after school. He’d grab his glove, meet friends in the park and play until dinner. Today, he reflected, kids would be more likely to be found working on their hitting technique in a supervised training session.

University of Texas historian Steven Mintz, who has tracked the history of American childhood, agrees with the idea that children have lost freedom. Mintz claims that unstructured play and outdoor play for children declined by almost 40 percent from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. Instead of meeting friends and playing freely, children spend their lives being driven from tennis classes to organized play dates.

What are the consequences of this lack of freedom?

One is that health conditions – conditions that pose far higher risks to our children than being left in a car for a few minutes – are on the rise. Kids are getting fatter, in part because they are no longer free to go outside and run around. As a result, what used to be termed “adult diabetes” is now simply called type 2 diabetes, because now children get it too. The Centers for Disease Control says that, if current trends continue, one in three adults in 2050 could have diabetes. In contrast, a child has a less than one in a million chance of being abducted and murdered. But diabetes lacks the horror of kidnapping, so we pay it less attention.

Another consequence involves the mental health of children. More and more studies show a link between overbearing parenting and poor mental health in young people. Consider a 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. Examining almost 300 college students, it looked at those with helicopter parents – overprotective parents who interfere with their children’s lives. It found that these students suffered diminished life satisfaction and higher levels of depression.

Could it be that for all the effort modern parents put into parenting, for all the enrichment opportunities provided to children and for all the focus on reducing risks and threats, we are actually harming our children?

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

Parents in the United States today are not only fearful; they fear the wrong things. Risks that are tiny, when examined rationally, are given undue attention. Children are denied the freedoms that their parents and grandparents’ generations took for granted. And this all has a cost: stressed, ashamed parents, and children whose physical and mental health suffers.

About the author

Kim Brooks is a writer and editor of personal essays at the news and opinion website Salon. She is also the author of the 2016 novel the Houseguest. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children.

Kim Brooks is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, The Missouri Review, and other journals, and her essays have appeared in Salon, Buzzfeed, New York Magazine, LennyLetter, and on WNYC’s Note to Self. Her debut novel, The Houseguest, was published in 2016 by Counterpoint Press. Her memoir, Small Animals, is published by Flatiron Books. Brooks lives in Chicago with her family.

Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Part I Fear Itself

1 The Day I Left My Son in the Car

2 Parenthood as a Competitive Sport

3 The Fabrication of Fear

4 Negative Feedback

5 Self-Report

Part II The Cost of Fear

6 What a Horrible Mother

7 Quality of Life

8 Guinea Pigs

9 Small Animals




“It might be the most important book about being a parent that you will ever read.” ―Emily Rapp Black, New York Times bestselling author of The Still Point of the Turning World

“Brooks’s own personal experience provides the narrative thrust for the book ― she writes unflinchingly about her own experience…. Readers who want to know what happened to Brooks will keep reading to learn how the case against her proceeds, but it’s Brooks’s questions about why mothers are so judgmental and competitive that give the book its heft.” ―NPR

One morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her four-year old son in the car while she ran into a store. What happened would consume the next several years of her life and spur her to investigate the broader role America’s culture of fear plays in parenthood. In Small Animals, Brooks asks, Of all the emotions inherent in parenting, is there any more universal or profound than fear? Why have our notions of what it means to be a good parent changed so radically? In what ways do these changes impact the lives of parents, children, and the structure of society at large? And what, in the end, does the rise of fearful parenting tell us about ourselves?

Fueled by urgency and the emotional intensity of Brooks’s own story, Small Animals is a riveting examination of the ways our culture of competitive, anxious, and judgmental parenting has profoundly altered the experiences of parents and children. In her signature style―by turns funny, penetrating, and always illuminating―which has dazzled millions of fans and been called “striking” by New York Times Book Review and “beautiful” by the National Book Critics Circle, Brooks offers a provocative, compelling portrait of parenthood in America and calls us to examine what we most value in our relationships with our children and one another.

Read an Excerpt



It happened in the parking lot of a strip mall during the first week of March 2011, my last morning in Virginia, at the end of a visit with my parents. The day it happened was no different from any other: I was nervous, and I was running late.

I was thirty-three at the time — a young mother, a frazzled woman, an underemployed writer, a mostly stay-at-home mom, secretly wishing I was something more, something else. I had a husband, a son, a daughter, and a dog. We lived together in a town house in Chicago. But all of this happened in Virginia, in the rural-suburban community south of Richmond where I’d spent most of the first eighteen years of my life. I’d taken my children there to visit my parents for the week, and now the week was over. Back to Chicago. Back to life.

The morning it happened, I was packing and planning. Packing is utterly transformed by becoming a parent. There had been a time when packing had been fun and easy. For an entire summer in Israel, I’d once packed nothing but sundresses, a pair of Birkenstocks, a few Edith Wharton novels, and a package of oral contraceptives. For a semester in France, I’d packed a few pairs of jeans, black shirts, an English-French dictionary, and an asthma inhaler in case I decided to take up smoking. When my husband and I traveled in the days before having children, we mostly packed books. Travel was for reading, walking, eating, seeing. It was for sex and sleeping in. I remember once being out at dinner with a friend who said, “I have to go home early to pack.” I’d wondered what she meant. “Don’t you just open up your suitcase and throw some shit in?” I’d asked. That was how I thought about packing until the age of twenty-nine. Then something changed: The something was parenthood. When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips. When you have small children, packing is a challenge, a project, an ordeal — or if you’re me, and you spend hours thinking about every worst-case scenario and how you might prevent it and what you might need if it comes to pass, a destination as exotic as Massachusetts seems impossibly inhospitable simply by virtue of not being the place where you have all of your shit.

* * *

“Mom!” I yelled across my parents’ house. “Mom! Have you seen Felix’s headphones?”

She was in the backyard, pulling up weeds, watching him jump on the trampoline. “Your phone?” she called back. “Have you looked in your pocket?”

“Not my phone. His headphones … for the plane.”

“Look in your purse,” she said. “Look on the kitchen counter.”

They were not in my purse. They were not on the kitchen counter. They were not in the diaper bag. They were not in my backpack. “Fuck,” I said, though not loudly, because the baby was sleeping and the doors in my parents’ house are cardboard-thin. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I whispered, then looked at the clock.

I’d divided the items to be packed into two categories. First were things I might possibly need during a flight with my four-year-old and two-year old — the category of contingency items. This category was infinite. It had no beginning and no end and grew larger with every trip I took with them. I tried not to think too much about this category. Then there was the category of things I would almost definitely need. Felix’s special headphones — the padded kind that were the only kind he’d tolerate wearing as he watched a movie on my iPad, leaving me free to do things like feed the baby or change the baby or bounce the baby up and down, trying to keep her from annoying the other passengers — were on the column of essential items. They were nonnegotiable, on par with diapers, wet wipes, bottles, a packet of unmixed formula, snack food, storybooks, water, a sippy cup, a stroller, a change of clothes, a changing mat, crayons, paper, stickers, suckers for popping ears at takeoff and landing, and my bottle of lorazepam — a lovely controlled substance also known by the brand name Ativan, a member of the lovely class of drugs called benzodiazepines, whose main indication is the treatment of anxiety disorders — to keep me from having a panic attack during turbulence or any of the other in-flight moments when the irrational portion of my brain sent a message to my body that, by the way, you and your children are currently hurtling miles above the earth at five hundred miles per hour in a manmade cylinder resembling a large, aluminum coffin. Yes, a low dose of lorazepam was as essential for flying as my four-year-old’s special headphones.

I had the lorazepam. I didn’t have the headphones. This was what I was thinking as I slid open the screen door and told my mother I was running to the store.

Felix had hopped down from the trampoline and was pushing a toy lawn mower around the yard when I made the announcement. “Can I come?” he asked.

“You hate going to the store,” I reminded him. “Why don’t you stay here with Grandma?” It wasn’t really a question and yet I phrased it as a question. This was a habit I’d later learn to identify, of mistakenly turning a command into a choice. What I meant to say was, You stay at home with Grandma, Felix. Mommy will be right back. A very clear order. And yet, without ever consciously deciding to do so, I’d become a parent who associated empathy for my kids’ feelings and discussion and consensus-building with enlightened parenting. Are you ready for dinner? Should we clean up your toys? Can you apologize to your sister for drawing on her feet? Parents such as myself didn’t give orders; we made suggestions, negotiated, took things under consideration.

I had ample love, endless good intentions, and absolutely no confidence in my own authority. And often I’d wonder why, in the time I passed with my children, did I feel so anxious and overpowered and out of control?

“No Grandma. I want to come with Mommy. I go too,” Felix said.

I should have seen what was going on — my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car, and he was trying to score the extra screen time. My parents let him do all kinds of things I didn’t let him do at home. I let them let him. My children saw their grandparents three or four times a year. Felix knew the system. I was too busy rushing and worrying to think about his motives.

I was busy thinking — thinking about the security line, the boarding process, how there were few things I enjoyed less than flying, and how flying with my children was one of them. I was thinking about the quiet rage I would feel as I struggled barefoot with my thrashing children through the metal detectors or body scanners while other passengers sighed behind me at our slowness, the impatience I’d feel at their impatience, at my own clumsiness, and at the security procedures themselves, procedures that would surely not prevent a determined person from blowing our plane out of the sky but that we’d all submit to in a choreographed act of security theater.

“Pleeeeeaaase?” Felix said.

It seemed heartless not to let him come along. Also, and maybe more important, I was weak. I equivocated and wavered. As a mother who was also trying to work and write, stealing time away from one pursuit to feed the other, I was uncertain, second-guessing, skeptical of my own instincts. These were useful qualities to have as a writer. They sharpened the critical eye, staved off complacency, urged redoing and redoing again. They were not great qualities for a parent. Whatever that quality is that gives people the confidence to say to a child or an electorate or an army, “I know the answer; do as I say!” I didn’t have it.

“Kim,” my mom called to me from the laundry room. “Just let him stay here. It’ll be faster. Stay with Grandma,” she said to my son.

“Noooo!!!!! Want Mommy. I want to go with Mommy. Mommy, don’t leave me.”

For about two seconds, I tried to think of a good reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to come along, why my convenience running this errand should be prioritized over his desire to spend time with me, his mother. Children needed time with their mothers. So much time. Endless time. When I couldn’t think of such a reason, I folded.

“All right,” I said. “But hurry up. We have a plane to catch. Quick, quick. Let’s go.”

* * *

I remember other details about that morning. I remember it was overcast and cool enough that we both put on our jackets before we left — Felix’s neon orange, mine pink — and that I was thinking how in Chicago, though it was already March, it would probably be snowing.

I took Felix’s hand and led him into my mother’s minivan. The garage door was open, which was how she left it if she was inside or around the neighborhood. “What do I have that anyone around here wants to steal?” she’d ask. She was probably right. There were more squirrels per square acre than humans; it just wasn’t the sort of place where someone was going to walk into a garage and steal a bike. There would be nowhere to go with it, no place for people to hide from each other.

We got in the car and drove two miles along the winding two-lane parkway, past the side streets where kids rode bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people didn’t bother to lock their doors, and then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, to get home, to get my two-year-old daughter up from her nap, to get her fed and changed, to get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane. Halfway to the store, Felix noticed Grandma’s iPad, which was sitting on the seat beside him. Like an air pressure gauge, the owners’ manual, a box of Kleenex, an iPad was just something you found in a minivan. Felix started to play with it. I said nothing.

He was still playing when we pulled up in front of the parking lot.

“Ready?” I said.

“I don’t want to go in,” he said.

I turned around to look at him. “Felix,” I said. “Come on. You said you wanted to come with Mommy.”

He was tapping animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. “I don’t want to go in. I changed my mind.”

I tried to make my voice both calm and firm.

“Felix,” I repeated. “If we don’t get your headphones, you won’t be able to watch a movie on the flight. It’s a long flight. If you can’t watch a movie on the plane, you’re going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We’re running late.”

He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as pre-tantrum agitation. “No, no, no! I wait here,” he said.

I took a deep breath. I knew what I was supposed to do. Set a limit. Be firm and consistent. Communicate my expectation calmly but with authority. But I was tired. I was late. I was nervous about flying. I didn’t want, at that moment, to deal with the full-scale meltdown of my spirited, forty-pound four-year-old. Also, just beneath these reasons was something else, something more serious. It was a voice, this small, quiet voice I’d been hearing more and more lately. “Why?” the voice asked. “Why?” Why did I have to do it? Why did I have to have this discussion, this confrontation, this battle? It wasn’t as though he were asking to smoke a joint or to rollerblade in traffic. He just wanted to sit in the car and play his little game for a few minutes. Why did I have to drag him inside? It was cool outside, hardly fifty degrees. The parking lot was safe. There were four or five cars around, a couple of middle-aged women in festive sweaters unloading their carts. It was the middle of the day. Cloudy and mild. Felix hadn’t yet figured out how to undo his car seat buckle. Nothing was going to happen to him in the four or five minutes it would take for me to run into the store. I could lock the doors, crack the windows. If anyone tried the handle, the alarm would sound, but no one was going to try the handle. Hadn’t I grown up waiting in the car while my own parents ran errands? What could possibly happen, here of all places, in just five minutes? Why couldn’t I leave him, just this once?

I looked at the clock. I looked back at my son. Then, for the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seemed I’d been doing every minute of every day since having children, a never-ending, risk-benefit analysis. I noted the mild weather. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. Mostly, though, I visualized how quick, unencumbered by a fussing four-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of headphones, checking out, and coming back to the car. So I let him wait there. I told him I’d be right back. I opened the windows halfway to ventilate the car. I child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set.

I went into the store to get the headphones.

* * *

The store I visited that day might have been newly constructed, along with all the other mega-chain big-box stores spurred by an influx of families and professionals to central Virginia, but the space itself, the place where I left him that day, was familiar. I’d grown up about two miles from where I stood. I knew the sky, the flat, hazy horizon, the local people, their accent, more twang than drawl. My parents still lived in the same subdivision down the road where we’d moved when I was one. They lived on the same street and in the same house where I grew up. How I hated Brandermill, that subdivision, when I left it at eighteen, that street, that house, its planned-development stupor, its inaccessibility to all things meaningful and cultural, its lack of sidewalks, its sprawling golf course, its painful faux pastoralness that had obliterated a genuine pastoralness for the purposes of God knows what, making nature seem less threatening, less necessary to explore (which was extra work), less unknowable.

“Why did you move here?” I asked them at least once a month throughout my teen years. “Why would anyone choose to live here?”

“Oh, come on, Kimmy,” my dad answered. “If you think this is the worst place, you haven’t seen much of the world.”

Of course, in many ways, he was right. In this rural-suburban, 1980s, American subdivision, my childhood was largely free from the hardships children have faced throughout much of human history, and continue to face today in much of the world. There was no starvation, no lack of sanitation, no outbreaks of deadly, communicable diseases, no war or mass violence. Crime was low. Neighbors knew or at least recognized one another. My mother seldom locked our door.

Occasionally, of course, even in such an idyllic setting, bad things happened to children. When I was twelve, a girl named Charity Powers, who lived in an adjacent county, disappeared outside a fast-food restaurant near a roller-skating rink late at night while waiting for her mother’s friend to pick her up. There was a massive search effort, her grainy, photographed face appearing on the six o’clock news. People in supermarket aisles wondered what a little girl was doing alone in a parking lot so late at night. Where was the mother? It was the mother’s boyfriend, some said. He never showed up. But these grumblings faded four months later when her body was found in a shallow grave on the property of a man who was later found guilty of capital murder. It really happened. She really died. But I remember it now, almost thirty years later, because it was so unusual, so exceptional in its horror.

Still, there were other, awful things from time to time. A carful of teenagers crashed into a tree in our neighbor’s yard, killing three and maiming the fourth. A high school sophomore’s truck was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Another teen dove from a rocky ledge into a swimming hole and snapped his neck. But I remember these incidents precisely because they were anomalous. Bad things happened to children, even in Brandermill, but only on the rarest of occasions. And so when they happened, you remembered them. Surely similar tragedies struck other communities around the country, but when they did, with the exception of the rare, high-profile case, we didn’t hear about them. This was pre–internet age, pre–Amber Alert; we knew when terrible things happened within arm’s reach, but not beyond.



An NPR Best Book of the Year 2018

“Small Animals is a perfect book-club read for parents: It’s well-researched, divisive and enjoyable from start to finish.” – BookPage (Editor’s Picks)

“Often funny and always observant, Small Animals is a poignant look at what it means to raise children in modern America.” – Bustle

“Brooks’s own personal experience provides the narrative thrust for the book ― she writes unflinchingly about her own experience…. Readers who want to know what happened to Brooks will keep reading to learn how the case against her proceeds, but it’s Brooks’s questions about why mothers are so judgmental and competitive that give the book its heft.” – NPR

“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

“Engaging, enraging, terrific…” – New York Post

“Small Animals attempts to assess how modern American parenthood has become synonymous with fear and has ‘made people worse, or at least, worse to each other.’ Brooks arrives at many possible answers.” – TIME

“[Small Animals] is a funny, smart, and terrifying study of how irrational fear motivates so many cynical, small, and closed-minded actions in today’s America. But it’s also hopeful that, through reason and empathy, parents and non-parents alike can work to reduce this fearfulness and live in communities driven by compassion and a shared belief in the common good.” – LA Review of Books

“What [Brooks] can do, and has done beautifully in Small Animals, is ask her readers to give mothers the right to be rational, and change the language from one of criminalizing and shaming to one of supporting and cooperating.” – Book Reporter

“A memoir that will captivate parents and non-parents alike.” – Paste

“Once you pick up Small Animals, you won’t want to put it down: Great storytelling. Fascinating content. Disturbing findings….Perhaps books like Small Animals will help restore some rational thought to a pervasive problem.” – Wicked Local

“Brooks dissects our existence and exposes the animal of parenting for everything that it is. It’s what makes this book genius.” – The Coachella Review

“An impassioned, smart work of social criticism and a call for support and empathy.”- The National Book Review

“Small Animals is more than a memoir: It is a call to action for all of us to quit the judgmental parenting Olympics.” – BookPage

“Small Animals by Kim Brooks, came at me like a giant exhalation, a release of so much of the stress I’ve carried around since become a mother. I forced my advance copy on someone within an hour of finishing it, telling her it would change her life. It’s already changed mine.” – Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers

“A disturbingly, ultimately affirming look at why parenting in the contemporary United States is defined by fear.” – Publishers Weekly

“Parents will flock to read the first nonfiction book from Brooks…Her engaging account of life as a modern-day parent blends memoir and her research from interviews with other parents, psychiatrists, and parenting experts to provide a deeper understanding of the ways fear and judgment affect the limits and freedoms we give ourselves and our children.” – Booklist (starred review)

“This is a surprisingly moving account of what is a fairly common experience, delivering readers much food for thought on the multilayered issues of how much control parents should have over their children’s lives and how much input parents should offer other parents….An engaging, enlightening story that reveals the potential harm parents and society can do to children when they don’t allow them any freedoms at all.” -Kirkus

“This thoughtful, thought-provoking book is part memoir, part examination about our modern American parenting culture, which is often fueled by anxiety and judgment. While I am not a particularly anxious parent, I did find Kim’s personal story moving, and her research enlightening. I want to talk about it with every parent I know.” – Edan Lepucki, New York Times bestselling author of California

“Small Animals is one of the most important parenting books of our generation–and a gripping read besides. At the book’s heart is a harrowing story, beautifully told. But Kim Brooks goes beyond her own experience, weaving together reporting, social criticism, and personal narrative to create a troubling portrait of a nation driven mad with worry.” – Claire Dederer, New York Times bestselling author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses and Love and Trouble: A Reckoning

“This exceptionally insightful work is an act of service to humanity.” – Sarah Manguso, author of 300 Arguments

“Everyone tells you parenthood will change you for the better. But few parents describe how the current, high-strung culture of parenting can erode your confidence, feed your worst impulses, and force you back into some regressive, second-guessing state you haven’t experienced since you were a preteen. Kim Brooks offers an engrossing, insightful examination of the countless absurdities, identity crises, and obnoxious obstacles that come with raising children at a time when wisdom and perspective are the rarest qualities around. Small Animals is a beautifully told, harrowing story with a clear moral that all parents should take to heart: This job is very hard. Forgive yourself.” – Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly columnist for New York Magazine and author of How to Be a Person in the World

“One otherwise ordinary day, Kim Brooks found herself accused, by virtue of a parking-lot stranger’s cell-phone surveillance, of being a criminally negligent parent. The story of what followed, smoothly interspersed with cultural reflections, anecdotes, and bracingly honest, often droll, introspection, is both a can’t-put-it-down narrative and a sharp diagnosis of the fears, guilt, and costs to both parents and children of the contemporary fixation on keeping kids safe. Written in a voice that is crisp and unpretentious but dives deep, Small Animals is a pleasure both to read as a memoir and to mull over for its cultural insights.”
– Susan Bordo, author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton and The Flight to Objectivity

“Kim Brooks is a great storyteller. She has seamlessly woven together journalism and personal narrative to form a book that is the perfect antidote to our culture of over-parenting ― a book that is calming but also alarming, because it shows how far we’ve gone off the tracks. Any mother or father who is currently sipping and self-medicating and endlessly Googling their way through the fear factory of early parenthood must read Small Animals. It will give them something those other fixes cannot offer: necessary perspective.”
– Sarah Hepola, New York Times bestselling author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

“Part memoir, part history, part documentary, part impassioned manifesto, Small Animals is a genius alchemy of the personal and the political, the mirco and the macro, the social and the historical, in a time when parenting has become saturated with fear and outlandish expectations for parents and children alike. Brooks uses her innate curiosity to unpack why and how parenting has become, in many cultures, an Olympics of achievement and a way of proving one’s ‘goodness.’ Although Small Animals is far too wise and gorgeous to be a parenting book, it might be the most important book about being a parent that you will ever read.” – Emily Rapp Black, New York Times bestselling author of The Still Point of the Turning World

“Why have we become so fearful as parents? When did parenthood become a minefield of insecurity and shame? With humor, heart, and intelligence, Kim Brooks explores these issues using her own deeply personal story.” – Jancee Dunn, author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids

Small Animals is a funny, empathetic, and eloquent report from deep inside the bunker of our national anxiety disorder. Profoundly thoughtful and richly detailed, it shows us how we got here and offers moms and dads some guidance, as well as some moral support, as to how it might be possible to find a way out of our self-inflicted reign of terror. – William Deresiewicz, New York Times bestselling author of Excellent Sheep