Why do we judge parents for leaving kids unattended when it's perfectly safe?

lazy swing
CC BY 2.0 Ian Keating -- Child swings alone at a playground.

The U.S. desperately needs a return to rationality and statistics when it comes to child safety. A fascinating new study examines how people overestimate the risks to children based on their moral judgments of a parent's behavior.

On a hot day in July, Julie Koehler was driving her three daughters through Evanston, Illinois. She stopped at Starbucks, opened the minivan’s sliding door, rolled down the windows, and left the three girls (ages 4, 5, and 8) watching a movie while she ran inside to grab a coffee. She was gone for three minutes, but it was just long enough for a nosy police officer to notice the girls, ask a few questions, and launch a child abuse investigation. Koehler, a lawyer, fought the case and the investigation was closed after the charge was found to be ‘unfounded,’ but only after questioning Koehler’s mental health and examining the girls for signs of physical abuse.

Every day, stories like this one appear in the news. The United States has become a place where a parent cannot leave their child alone for a minute, for fear of getting arrested and thrown in jail. It’s a place where neighbors, onlookers, police officers, social workers, and judges work together, bizarrely, to criminalize parents for doing something that the parents themselves do not view as inherently dangerous for their kids, just because it goes against a social norm.

There’s something very wrong with this, which is why a group of researchers from the University of California investigated. The resulting report is called “No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children.” Authors Ashley Thomas, Barbara Sarnecka, and Kyle Stanford explore the odd and dangerous feedback loop that “increases the legal and social penalties for leaving kids alone and reinforces the belief that even the briefest parental absence amounts to child abuse” (The Star).

Looking at the numbers, it makes no sense to be paranoid about leaving one’s child unattended. The chances that a stranger will abduct and kill or not return a child is about 0.00007 percent, or one in 1.4 million annually. By contrast, motor accidents are the leading cause of preventable death for children in the U.S., and yet parents continue driving kids to school for fear of their getting abducted along the way. Likewise, a child is 8 times more likely to die walking through a parking lot than remaining in a parked car:

“But when a parent with a child in tow runs into the grocery store for a few minutes, he or she has to choose between allowing the child to wait in the car, which is safer but might get her arrested or jailed and/or her child taken away — and the more dangerous option of bringing the child with her because this is socially approved” (NPR).

In order to test people’s perceptions of risk and morality, the researchers developed a set of 5 vignettes, describing children of varying ages left alone by their mothers for varying amounts of time. See descriptions below:

The only thing that differed was the reason for the mother’s absence, which could be either unintentional (an accident, etc.) or intentional (to go to work, relax, volunteer, or meet a lover). Study volunteers were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much danger the child was in; how “immoral” the mother’s actions were; and list which harmful things might happen to the child.

The results were fascinating, yet disturbing. It was found that people make strong moral judgments about a parent who leaves her child alone. (Fathers leaving their kids unattended was not perceived to be as grievous a violation of the norm, interestingly.)

“Specifically, participants judged that children whose parents left them alone on purpose were in greater danger than those whose parents left them by accident, despite identical descriptions of the circumstances in which children were alone (i.e., asleep in a car, parked in the cool underground parking garage of a gym, for 15 minutes).”

Why is this happening? It’s due in large part to the media. The easier it is to think of an example of something awful happening, the more likely you are to think it could actually happen to you. Now, with 24/7 news coverage and social media going wild at every turn, public perception has been skewed, litigiousness has increased, and people see inflated risk everywhere.

The researchers concluded:

“The most important conclusion we draw from this set of experiments is the following: People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.”

This is a distressing situation, not least of all because it reflects deep classism. As author Barbara Sarnecka explains in an interview with NPR, nobody is able to watch their child every single second until they turn 18. Particularly for parents who work and actually need to get something done during the day, such a parenting model is absurd. It’s a situation that basically criminalizes poverty and single parenthood.

There needs to be a huge shift away from assuming the worst is bound to happen to unattended children. Rationality and statistics need to catch up with people’s judgments, both unofficially and in court. We need to start talking about the dangers of not leaving kids alone, as it inhibits the development of what psychologists call ‘self-efficacy’ – a person’s confidence in their ability to handle situations as they arise.

Nobody can assess a child’s level of responsibility better than a parent, which is why parents should have the right to make decisions about his or her child’s level of independence without fear of punishment.

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