Fear Has Turned Parenting Into a Hyper-Competitive Nightmare

Kim Brooks, author of 'Small Animals: Parenthood In the Age of Fear' explains how today's culture of hyper-competitive parenting is hurting our kids.

by Dave Baldwin

Kim Brooks was on a plane to Chicago when the police came looking for her. Earlier in the day, after a week visiting family in Virginia with her kids, Brooks ran into a Target to make a quick purchase before her flight. She left her 4-year-old son in the car. It was cool outside. The windows were cracked and the doors locked. When she returned a few minutes later, he was happily playing on the iPad. Little did she know at the time, though, somebody had filmed her leaving her child in the car and called the police ⏤ who were now standing at her parents’ front door looking to make an arrest.

The events of that day, and those that unfolded over the next two years, serve as the foundation for Brooks’ new book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. Part memoir, part deep-dive investigation into the current state of modern parenting, Small Animals explores how parents today, unlike those of previous generations, have been thrust into a hyper-competitive culture of fear and anxiety. From stranger abduction and chemicals in food to economic instability and the fear that their children won’t get into the right schools, parents have never been more afraid. This, Brooks asserts, has created a toxic environment where parenting intersects with paranoia and parents are pitted against one another a spiraling game of Who Can Worry More?

But why are parents so scared? And how did things get so bad? We recently spoke with Brooks about Small Animals, irrational parenting fears, and why there’s never been a worse time for dads to jump head first into parenting.

In Small Animals, you write that fear is communal, but parental fears do not always correspond to the most apparent and pressing dangers children face. Can you explain?

After this happened, I wondered: Did I do something that was risky? Did I do something that was wrong? I wasn’t sure at first. As I researched it, though, I found that the most dangerous thing I actually did that day was put my son in the car and drive someplace. Around 487 children die or are injured every day in car accidents, but we tend not to think of that as dangerous. Instead, we think a lot about child abduction, for example, which is much rarer.

One of the statistics I use in the book is that you’d have to let your child wait in a public space by themselves for an average of 750,000 years before they would be abducted by a stranger. That’s how rare it is. Hot car deaths, where a parent forgets their child in the car, happens about 30 times a year. The things that get a lot of media attention and often come to mind as fears don’t actually pose the greatest risks for kids.

Hot cars and abduction aside, what are some of the other common parenting fears you came across in your research? What are parents really scared about?

Everything. The fears are really wide-ranging. In the book, I divide them into two types of fear. One type is fear of the external world. We have a sense that our children aren’t safe in this world. There are these dangers, all these threats ⏤ whether it’s stranger danger or chemicals out there ⏤ and if you don’t watch your kid every second, this shape-shifting but ever-present threat is going to hurt your child.

The other type of fear is a more general kind of anxiety that stems from an increase in class stratification, a decrease in social mobility, and the collapsing social safety net. It’s the kind of anxiety that says if you don’t do everything for your kid, if you don’t provide them the best education, the best recreational activities, the best environment for their social and emotional development, the most enrichment, then they’re not going to get into the right college, they’re not going to get a good job, and they’re not going to be okay.

William Deresiewicz wrote a book called Excellent Sheep and in it, he has this great quote: “In a winner-take-all society, you’re going to want your kids to be winners.” That is another strain of this fear. We live in a culture and a country that doesn’t take care of everybody, and to end up a worker or near the bottom is pretty awful. In the last decade of the 20th century, we’ve really privatized a lot of the costs and responsibilities of raising children. Things that parents used to be able to depend on the government or community for, like a good education, for example, parents now have to figure and pay for ⏤ everything is a la carte ⏤ and it leads to another kind of anxiety.

Are there any fears that are substantiated statistically in the last 30 years? Has anything changed that we actually should be worried about? Climate change, of course, is coming to mind.

[Laughs] Yeah, we could start with the obvious, that the earth may be literally uninhabitable in years. I mean that’s the one that jumps out at me too. But putting that aside because it’s too horrifying, there’s the fact that if we stay on our current trajectory as a country, one in two Americans will have Type 2 Diabetes by 2050. The rates of childhood obesity and Diabetes in children are soaring. Also, depression in kids and teenagers. suicide, general anxiety disorder, all these measures of mental health and wellness are pretty disconcerting. But those aren’t the kind of things that make for exciting news stories, so we don’t focus on them as much.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, and if you look back at the way our parents raised kids of that generation, it was as if they had no fear about what was happening because we were off doing our own thing. Why are parents so afraid these days?

That’s a good point about our generation. I grew up in the 1980s, as well. Part of it may be that the pendulum is swinging back from that decade, which was more of a me-first moment in time with a lot of individualism. A lot of people who grew up then have a sense that maybe parents weren’t so focused on the well-being of their children. There was a lot of divorce. It was a more permissive culture. So parents like us now want our kids to feel like we see them, that we care about them, and that we have their best interest at heart. And in some ways it’s good. The problem is the pendulum has swung so far in that direction, that we’re now seeing other problems from this sort of hyper-vigilance.

What are some of those problems for children?

For children, some of the things I mentioned: Depression, anxiety, a lack of resiliency, a lack of independence and independent thinking. I read something recently about moral dependence that I found interesting. It’s the idea that some people are unable to develop their own moral code and always turn to some higher authority to solve problems.

One example is bullying. Bullying has been in the news for years now and schools have bullying protocols and in some ways this is good. It’s no longer acceptable for children to be psychologically or emotionally tortured by their peers. And it’s good that we don’t just say, “Oh, toughen up.” But on the other hand, when we teach them that the first thing you do when you feel hurt or sad or angry is to contact the authorities, to contact the principal or the teacher and start the wheels turning in some bureaucratic mechanism to work the problem out, they’re not really learning very much in terms of problem-solving or how to negotiate with their peers. It creates another problem.

How about for parents?

In terms of adults, I think it impacts women a lot more. One, because women still do more than their fair share of the childcare and domestic work. But it doesn’t just impact women. In some ways, there’s this sad irony. We’re at a moment where men are being asked to do more child and domestic work then they’ve ever been asked to do before, but it’s at a moment when the culture of intensive parenthood can be miserable. Just as we’re asking men to do more, we’re ushering them into this style of parenthood that can be completely consuming and soul-crushing and annihilate your entire identity outside of parenthood. That then breeds a lot of bitterness. Of course, women aren’t that sympathetic because we’ve been doing this for a thousand years, but in some ways, it’s a bad time for men to get on the parenting train.

So there’s a new notion of what a good parent is. That’s what’s changed.

That’s right. A lot of people of my parents’ generation will say things like, “I think I was a pretty good parent in the 60s or 70s or maybe 80s, but I’d be a terrible parent today.” All these things they did would be, if not criminalized, really stigmatized today.

You also say that moms and dads are held to a different parenting standard?

I think so. There’s this tendency when we see fathers parenting to just give them credit for showing up a lot of times. Yeah, it’s great that you’re with the kid. Women don’t get that kind of benefit of the doubt.

You have a chapter in Small Animals about parenting as a competitive sport. Are moms being pitted against moms, parents against other parents, who is competing?

I think it’s everybody. We have this very hyper-individualized approach to parenting now where every individual parent is responsible for their individual child and nobody shares responsibility. Combine that with a feeling of scarcity, that there’s not enough to go around and if your kid doesn’t get it then there won’t be enough, and parenting ends up being competitive. And the solution isn’t just to tell people to stop being so competitive or to not be so afraid. We really have to shift to a whole new paradigm where we care about other peoples’ kids and not just our own. We need more of a communal approach to raising children.

So the big question is then, how did parenting go so far astray. What happened?

I’m still working on the answer to that. In fact, a lot of the book is me trying to figure out how this happened. The theory I’m currently working on has to do with the need to disempower women. That’s a big a part of it. When women entered the workforce en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, we sort of paid lip service to this idea of women’s lib that women can be full members of society ⏤ they can be mothers and they can work. But we didn’t actually back up that ideology with the policies or structures necessary for women to succeed. We never really came up with anyway for someone else to help raise the children, either partners or larger communities or national programs that would assume some of that responsibility.

It indicates that we still have a lot of ambivalence in this country about the idea of women and mothers working, and women being independent. And we’ve created this culture of intensive motherhood that makes it pretty impossible to be a mother and anything else. I don’t think that’s the whole story ⏤ the privatization of parenting, the growing class inequality and economic anxiety all play a part too ⏤ but a lot of this has to do with misogyny.

What can parents do to fix the problem? Should the government be more involved? What’s our way forward?

There is definitely a political element to the solution. We need policies in place that support parents, like universal daycare, mandatory parental leave, maternity leave, paternity, flexibility in the workplace, quality public education for all kids. There’s also a personal element. Lenore Skenazy runs a non-profit called letgrow.org, and she’s working with schools and communities to connect parents who are interested in a different way of parenting. She provides projects that enable kids to have more freedom. For example, she has one project where kids are sent home from school to do something by themselves that they’ve never done by themselves before.

But she recognizes that it’s hard to change these new social norms as an individual parent. What’s the point of sending your kid out on the sidewalk to play if there are no other kids out there playing? It all starts with parents talking about this honestly, and with an open mind, and working together to shift the whole mindset around parenthood. So easy stuff.

What are your thoughts on free range parenting laws? Are they the answer?

I think free-range parenting laws are a very first step. Yes, we need to say that parents should not be arrested for making rational parent choices. But that’s not the end game. We should not arrest moms for letting their kids walk to the park. After that, there’s a lot more that needs to be done.

To bring it all back to your story, how did it end? How long did it take to legally resolve the case?

It was two years before it was all finished. After about a year, they were going to charge me with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I ended up going back to Virginia and doing 100 hours of community service and 20 hours of parenting education in order to have the charges dropped.

And how did the incident itself, as well as researching and writing the book, change you as a parent? Are you a different parent today than you were before?

It certainly led me to give my children more freedom and independence than I would have if I had never started about researching and writing about these issues. It’s also changed how I think about my own fears and the standards I hold myself to as a mother. I think that mothers in this culture are very hard on themselves and are often held to impossible expectations of perfection. When I find myself doing that, I try to give myself a break. Of course, I still get anxious or nervous about things and worry about my kids, but now tell myself that while I can feel fear, it doesn’t mean I have to act on it. Sometimes you can feel fear and just accept that you’re afraid, but not live by it.

Finally, do you have any advice to help other parents move away from fear-based parenting?

One tip: It’s really good to read stuff from the past about kids and parents or to talk to people from other generations. Remember that the way we’re parenting now is not the way it’s always been done, and it’s not the way it has to be done.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.