When the Cops Come for You in the Target Parking Lot

A mom reflects on her experience parenting in the age of fear.


Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, by Kim Brooks, Flatiron Books, 256 pages, $26.99

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 you, is one step away from controlling." As kids get older, the expectation that we keep this control intensifies: We send them to schools that micromanage how they learn and behave, schedule them for after-school activities controlled by adults, and feel persistent pressure never to let them too far out of reach.

Brooks notes that, by and large, we are doing this to ourselves. Yes, her Target incident led to an unfortunate run-in with the police, but it was a citizen who snapped a pic and called the authorities. And much of the pressure that parents face doesn't involve the government at all. As Brooks writes, "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."

So what happened to us? Brooks offers many theories. The media exaggerate the dangers of the modern world, and we seem to have responded accordingly. As the race for jobs and college admissions grows (or at least appears to grow) more competitive, parents worry that easing back means sabotaging their children's futures. There may even be some sexism here—there is evidence that women experience much more negative judgment than men when they aren't attending to their children.

One of the most compelling parts of the book comes toward the end, when Brooks discusses what this cultural shift does to parents and to kids. One mother suggests to Brooks that parenting in an age of fear means that she remembers precious little of her children's actual childhoods; she just remembers the fear and anxiety. "Perhaps this was the greatest cost of fear," reflects Brooks, "the way it blots out everything it touches—drowning out the joys of parenthood, deadening the very thing we hoped it would protect." Children experience a similar deprivation: the loss of self-efficacy, of the confidence and ability to solve their own problems, of knowing any aspect of life free from adult monitoring.

As a side note, Brooks mentions that when she started writing on these issues, she noticed to her surprise that libertarian outlets like Reason were sympathetic. To her mind, overprotective parenting just wasn't an obvious libertarian issue, since "the parent-child relationship makes it impossible to talk about parenting strictly in terms of individual liberty." Yet when Brooks tells stories of hovering parents and overprotected kids, she is telling stories about individual liberty, where neither parent nor child is terribly free. In an age of fear, "whatever [parents] have to do to feel safe…we vow to do it, to pay whatever price is set for a feeling of safety, a feeling of control." Yet again, prizing safety above all else is how liberty is lost.

Reading Small Animals was a sort of therapeutic catharsis. Brooks is short on solutions, but her gifts at introspection in telling her own parenting story are sure to resonate with parents. They certainly did with me.

NEXT: Brickbat: Getting Carded

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  1. […] in on aspects of private life. As Small Animals author Kim Brooks discovered after she let her 3-year-old watch his tablet in a parking lot while she ran into Target, the combination of overvigilant citizens and overcautious law enforcement can spell […]

  2. […] in on aspects of private life. As Small Animals author Kim Brooks discovered after she let her 3-year-old watch his tablet in a parking lot while she ran into Target, the combination of overvigilant citizens and overcautious law enforcement can spell […]

  3. So what happens to a parent who takes their kid to a baseball or hockey game and the kid gets hit by the ball or puck?

    Nothing. Despite the threat of real harm by entering the arena or stadium – which they announce over the PA at every game – it is nobodies fault. But leaving them in a car for five minutes is terrorism or something.

    1. The worst of these fears is “the stalker” – that stranger who is lurking, just waiting to steal your little child.

      Every time there is a story about a missing child, mothers across the country are looking at their husbands and saying “I told you so!!” So even though this type if crime is very rare, it is near the top of concerns.

      We have a friend of the SJW persuasion who just adopted a child. They came over to play with our kids and I took a couple of pictures on my phone… “Oh… Don’t post those!!” she says, reacting with obvious anxiety. I raised an eyebrow and she remembered that I don’t do social media at all, so she demurs and recasts it, “It’s just, I don’t want those pictures out there. People can find out where your kids are”.

      I let it drop. You don’t argue with crazy.

      1. Missed opportunity:

        “Don’t worry, traffickers generally only abduct cute or smart children.”

        1. LOL

        2. MEANIE!!!


          that is too funny

      2. Stranger Danger was the first great parenting fear of the modern age. I experienced it as a kid growing up in the 60s and 60s. Even my tiny home town of 8,000 that never had a child abduction or (non-family-member) molestation in it’s entire history, before or since, freaked out of it.

        But these so called dangers are invariably rare in the extreme. Razer blades in Halloween candy apples don’t exist. Creepazoids passing out LSD laced stickers to school kids never happened. Vans lined up outside of elementary schools to snatch kids to sell into sex slavery is absurd fiction. Some bad things happen in life. But never forget the absolute rarity of it, even in dense urban settings.

        The big danger is always from family members. And even then it’s rare as fuck.

  4. One mother suggests to Brooks that parenting in an age of fear means that she remembers precious little of her children’s actual childhoods; she just remembers the fear and anxiety.

    It’s interesting that none of these people – overprotective parents, law enforcement, snitches – seem to remember their own childhood. I don’t know era it started, but I’d wager for most born before the mid-2000’s their formative years were not bubble-wrapped.

    1. I’m amazed at the number of people generally who say they can’t remember anything from before they were 10 or so.

  5. This will end when the mom files a criminal complaint against the busybody. Clearly anyone taking pictures of strangers kids in a public place is a sex trafficker planning their next snatch.

    1. And forming an alibi by calling the police no doubt

  6. Kevin Currie-Knight

    Cuck? What man takes a hyphenated last name?

    Who the fuck is reason hiring to review books these days?

    1. Are you assuming his gender based on having a traditionally masculine name? How incredibly un-woke of you.

      Don’t you know that gender is a social construct and therefore a choice? Not some archaliac biological fact.

      1. since when is the equipment one generally keeps contained within their britches a “social construct, and not some archaic biological fact”?

        Seems YOU”RE the one whose smoking something strange and probably illegal.

    2. I know Kevin personally. He’s a cool dude. Legit dude. Lots of men take hyphenated names. Get over it. Hell, as far as you know it could the name he was born with. So take your Neanderthal opinions and shove them up your ass.

      1. No-thanks.

      2. You could have just said yes.

    3. Sounds like you’re upset that nobody will ever marry you.

      Hint: It’s not them, it’s you.

      1. Already married, so I am not interested in your proposal.

  7. It’s easy to fall in to these tendencies but trying to convince anyone that their child isn’t likely to apontaneously combust like a pinto gas tank or to be snatched from their arms in a public place like the low budget thriller dejour falls on deaf ears. Worse than that you’re actively scorned and considered an unfit parent for suggesting that children don’t need more supervision and restriction than they’d receive in a federal penitentiary.

    In a world where a TV show ending is cause for people to be offered therapy to deal with the emotional strain this is just a sign of larger cultural problems.

    People have convinced themselves they’re raising confident, happy children by crippling them emotionally and eliminating any self management of self soothing skills. What we’re raising are generations of increasingly compliant and dependent people who believe some higher power is the only way they can possibly survive much less succeed. In this case that power ends up being our benevolent older sibling.

    1. +10

    2. People have convinced themselves they’re raising confident, happy children

      I don’t think parents are thinking they are raising confident, happy children. I think, to a large degree, they are demonstrating that they are good parents. And to a lesser degree, demonstrating they are good parents to others on their facebook feeds. Look around, see if this doesn’t go a long way towards explaining the actual behavior you see around you.

      1. +10

        If a parent wants to be the friend of their kid(s) all the time, it should raise red flags as to motivation of their parenting style.

        Parents are there to feed, clothe, house, protect, and teach kids.

        The thing about kids is they don’t always want to do what you say because you are in charge and responsible for them.

      2. I was told it takes a village to raise children.

        1. And villages have busybodies to get you arrested if you don’t do what they think is right. They probably read an article, or something, so they know what’s best for you.

        2. Hillary the Clinton She Unit lied to you. Get over it.She did the same thing to the rest of us, too. Thus we all get the “I Participated” trophy.

          When something is as common as dirt it has little value.

  8. I gess growing up in the suburbs in DC in the late 1980s and 1990s I my parents were among the first wave of helicopter parents. I did not suffer like a few of the kids in my class did from constantly hovering parents, there to fight every battle for them. I didn’t realize that something was off with the way some people were with there kids untill I was in middle school, when somekids (me) got the freedom of being dropped at the mall with our spending money and a few hours of relative freedom (ok our parents spied on us but we had no clue) then there were other kids whose mother would never leave them alone, if uou tried to talk to them outside of school there Mom was right there and she was blocking you from talking and no you could not hangout at the mall together but you could come over to their house next Saturday, where you would be well supervised. That same Mom and gossip about how So and so’s Mom lets her hangout at the mall alone, and should they call CPS. I kind of think thats were this mentally started, if you were left alone at Springfield Mall in the late 1990’s one of the mall creeps who hung around the mall bathroom might try to rape you or you might get mugged (this happened but to adult women at night in the parking lot) or the worst offense you might try your unsupervised hand at shopliftingand sneakingin to the movies and get caught! The truth is we knew if you broke the law you would be banned from the mall and might have to go to Juvie, we knew to avoid the mall bathroom and to use one at the department stores, and if went outside at night to ask for a security escort. I survived College and am a relatively functional adult, most of the helicopters parents kids are addicts, in jail or dead. Also there parents are the ones calling the cops on you because you left your kid in the car for five minutes.

    Sorry that was so long.

  9. What is the source?
    People without kids with guilt.
    People with a single kid; usually when you have 2 or more the “everything has to be perfect for xir” goes out the window in favor of just existing while dragging 2-3-4 young pups around trying to shop or visit the bank.
    Solution? Maybe only let people who have kids take those photos and call the police? Or cops who are good enough to say “no danger here”and give the kids a lollipop like Andy Griffith would have.

    1. True dat. It’s a product of the plastic adult society. Eventually we are going to reach the point where sane people will decide to not have any kids. That is what the pro-life people are really afraid of.

      A kid used to be a source of of labor on the farm, a source of support to take care of siblings and help with chores. Now a kid is worse than dead weight. Emotionally they are still wonderful, but in economic terms, they are leeches of time, money and sanity.

      1. That and kids allow government a means to circumvent Constitutional protections (4th Amendment for example). Child Services and their famous warrantless “safety checks”.

      2. Kids also used to be more plentiful. I and some other observers think their relative scarcity in these times and places has a very big effect on attitudes toward them.

        It’s getting hard to get enough enrollment for organized children’s football teams now. Partly it’s from recent (exaggerated) fears about head injuries, and partly it’s from fewer of them going out and playing anything, period — heck, they used to organize football on their own, without need of adults — which is partly laid to electronic amusements and culture. However, the biggest long-run factor is just that Americans are having fewer children, total, bottom line. Partly that’s made up for by immigration, which in the specific case of American football doesn’t help when it’s from places not familiar with this game.

  10. The fiction of the “rules solve everything” society. Yesterday they did ALICE training at my kid’s school. It’s “duck and cover” all over again. Fine to ease the anxiety of 6 year old’s who don’t know how to handle themselves. Not quite so fine for young adults who should be grasping how to deal with fluid situations. Would you give up the risk of life choices if it meant joining the Borg?

    1. That training is the worst.

      Telling kids to stay put…just to wait for a shooter to open the door and have easy targets.

      Run for your life or fight back is what I taught my kids. Then I taught my kids how to fight to win and jam a perp’s nose into his/her brain.

      1. Back in my day, all the classrooms had large “fire escape” windows. I can’t imagine that fire codes changed much. So, what’s wrong with teaching kids the “Bail out and run like Hell” strategy?

        1. school buildings these days are hermetically sealed (there’s POLLUTION outside there, you know….. also because of heat loss/gain.. gots ta save th’ PLANET from all those electrons they say will harm us in so many ways).

          So, no, there ARE no more fire escapes where the sealed windows were.

  11. Did the author do any comparison over space and/or time? Country to country, locales within countries, generation to generation?

  12. And then on the other hand?
    4 yr old dies when left in car by dad
    “The criminal complaint says Taylor was working at Grillfest at CHS Field, the St. Paul Saints stadium. He left his son in the vehicle with the window cracked because he couldn’t find care for the boy while he was working at the event.”

    While I love the reflexive libertarian circle-jerk of rage on when the jackbooted establishment fascists tromp on the pristine rights of the poor citizen, please, someone let me know how ‘leaving your kid in the car’ is OK?
    What colossal nonsense. I had 4 kids under 5. Don’t tell me how ‘hard’ it is to get a reluctant kid to do what you need them to do. HINT: You’re the PARENT. My guess is that Kim Brooks ‘uncooperative’ 3 yr old spent a lot of time being parented by an ipad.
    Maybe if the passers by in the linked story above hadn’t been quite so libertarian in outlook, someone could have called the cops and the 4 year old might still be alive?

    1. Comparing leaving a kid in a car for a few minutes while you run into a store and hours on end because you forgot or are working is beyond idiotic. The risk of death from traffic is higher dragging them through parking lots. Morons like you who think every kid in a car is forgotten and in danger of heat death on a cool day are what’s wrong with this world.

  13. Smartest move anyone can ever make is not to have any kids. If you are too stupid to figure that out, you shouldn’t be breeding anyway.

    1. Everyone in their twenties thinks they know the smartest move.

      Of course, it’s not so smart when you’re 80 and eating cat food cause that’s all you can afford.

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