WASHINGTON — Police came to Kim Brooks’ parents’ door in suburban Richmond, Virginia, demanding that her mother say where her daughter was or be arrested for obstructing justice. So began a Kafkaesque two-year ordeal that plunged Brooks into reflections about current parenting practices. It also produced a book, “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” that is a catalogue of symptoms of America’s descent into unfocused furiousness.
On a mild day, rushing to catch a plane home to Chicago, she darted into a Virginia Target to make a purchase, leaving her 4-year-old son in the locked car with a window slightly open. After five minutes, during which the car was in her view near the store’s door, she drove away. Before she boarded the plane to O’Hare, the police were in pursuit, summoned by a bystander who gave them Brooks’ license plate number and an iPhone video of the boy in the car. The video was supposedly evidence of a crime, “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” A five-minute contribution.
Brooks’ penitential acknowledgment of “a lapse in judgment” attested to her immersion in the prevalent weirdness about parenting. She is an anxious person. She medicates before flying, although she acknowledges how safe flying is compared with driving. She worries about “stranger danger,” although she knows “the statistical near impossibility” of child abductions that, always rare, are rarer than ever. She knows that risk assessment is a basic test of rationality that she and so many other parents flunk. Today, well past her sentence of 100 hours of community service and 20 hours of parenting instruction, Brooks, who calls herself “an uncritical consumer of anxiety,” also knows the following:
Because of the belief in “parental determinism,” mothers, especially, are susceptible to the fear that something seemingly minor that is done or left undone will impede Suzy’s path to Princeton and Congress. On what Brooks calls “the landscape of competitive, intensive, hypercontrolling parenthood” there is “performance” parenting, the constant mentioning — which means shaming parents with different approaches — of Billy’s myriad “enrichment” activities. Helicopter parents, who hover over their progeny all the way to college, subscribe to the belief — a neurosis, really — that “a child cannot be out of an adult’s sight for one second.” The practical implication is that parenthood is a middle-class entitlement; poor people need not apply. Helicopter parents are indignant — indignation is the default setting of millions of people for whom the personal is political — about “free-range” parents who allow their children to walk alone to, and play unsupervised in, a neighborhood park. No wonder children who have never had unstructured play and never had to negotiate their disputes with one another flinch in bewilderment from the open society of a well-run campus.
Brooks cites a psychologist who notes that technology has made it easier not just to monitor others with smartphone videos (“vigilante parent policing”), but also to critique and condemn others. And to distribute digital disapproval, reinforcing a supposed moral and intellectual hierarchy of mothers, wherein the best are the most cautious, most irrationally afraid, most risk-averse.
Brooks wonders how parenting became “a labyrinth of societal anxieties,” a toxic compound of “competitiveness and insecurity,” an arena of “chronic, gnawing perfectionism.” Start here: Why did the noun “parent” become a verb? Brooks says that “observing the arc of parenting norms” since World War II suggests that within the last 10 years we have “reached peak madness.” If only.
Contemporary America is a bubbling cauldron of acidic judgmentalism, a stew of status anxieties, of preening about lifestyle fads, and of nasty habits learned from government: Brooks seems to understand that “the criminalization of parenthood” occurs “within the confines of an oppressive and infantilizing nanny state.” The ever-metastasizing administrative state’s rage to regulate bleeds into a pandemic urge to criminalize more and more of life, and to excoriate and shame those whose behaviors cannot (yet) be formally punished.
It is not unrelated that whenever a third-rate comedian or an adjunct professor of gender studies at a third-tier college says something politically idiotic or — which is much the same thing — culturally “insensitive,” internet hordes who are happy only when unhappy become ecstatically enraged: A brain map might show their pleasure receptors ablaze, as if stimulated by another controlling addiction, cocaine.
Parenting will become increasingly frenzied as does the national culture of which such parenting is symptomatic. Such parenting is a transmissible social disease: People often parent as they were parented.
George Will’s syndicated column appears Thursdays and Sundays in the Tribune-Herald. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.