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Moral Judgments Distort Perceptions of Risk to A Child

New study reveals social phobia of leaving a child unsupervised.

Pixabay/public domain
Source: Pixabay/public domain

A recent study (2016) from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, illustrates an American “phobia of leaving a child unsupervised.” This experiment reveals intriguing correlation between the perceptions of risk for a child left unattended, even if only a few minutes, and the tendency toward moral outrage directed at a parent.

Developmental psychologists Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford and philosopher Barbara Sarnecka conducted an experiment with a sample group of over 1300 online participants who responded to different vignettes in which children of varying age were left unsupervised. Then participants rated the perceived risk of danger to the child and the morality of the parent’s actions.

One situation, for example, described a mother who dashed into the grocery store for 5 minutes and left her toddler in the car. In another, an 8-year-old was left at a neighborhood Starbucks for one hour, a block away from a parent. Participants were then asked to evaluate the potential risk of physical and emotion harm to the child and the morality of the parent’s action on a scale of 1 to 10.

Throughout a series of six experiments, Thomas and Stanford modified the reason the child was left unattended. In some instances, the child was left alone unintentionally, in others, so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, or relax and meditate.

Consistently the researchers found that participants' perception of risk of harm to the child varied according to the parent's reason for leaving. Even more, assessment of danger to the child was distorted by a moral judgment imposed on the parent for leaving the child unattended, even in situations that posed little possibility of peril. Moral judgments thus biased individuals’ ability to evaluate objectively whether the situation actually presented any realistic threat to the child.

Specifically, participants' condemnation of the parent inflated their own assessments of risk to the child. The less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people thought the child was in even if the situation was empirically and statistically low-risk. Stanford observes: “when people think they are judging danger to a child, much of what they are actually doing is imposing a moral judgment on the child's parents.”

For example, in one vignette, with all else equal – the child’s age, duration of the parent’s absence and location of the child while they were unattended— participants thought the child was in much greater danger when a parent left the child alone to meet a lover than when the child was left alone unintentionally. Estimates of danger to the child were not based in accurate risk assessment, but motivated in by moral judgment directed at the parent.

The number one cause of injury or death to a child in America is car accidents. In comparison the chances of child abduction by a stranger are miniscule, but being alone in public places was considered more dangerous than being in a moving car. A child is eight times more likely to be killed crossing a parking lot than waiting alone in a parked car. But when a parent runs into the store for a few minutes and leaves the child in the car, he or she could get her arrested and her child taken into state custody. The researchers suggest anxiety about social disapproval cause parents to often choose the riskier option, such as bringing the child with her or him across a busy parking lot.

Based on their study, they conclude there is a cultural shift in American norms of parenting toward a “hysteria about risk to children who are left alone.” The assessment of potential safety and imperil to a given child is rooted in irrational fear and arbitrary judgment that is disconnected from statistical realities about actual endangerment.

Many Americans view today's world as a more threatening place for children than previous decades. Yet the National Crime Victimization Survey shows that violent crime in the United States has decreased since the 1970s.

The motivation for this experiment sprang from the recent rise in instances of legal action against parents who left their child unsupervised as in the case of Debra Harrell (2014), an African-American mother arrested for allowing her daughter to play in a bustling public park one day in summertime for several hours while she worked at a nearby McDonald's. The child had a cell phone, house key and was a six-minute walk from home and apparently a track record of responsible behavior.

Another mother in the park watching her own child, instead of offering Harrell's girl assistance if needed, reported Harrell to the police who jailed the mother, charging her with unlawful conduct. Did arresting the mom and putting the child in foster care, separating her from her primary caregiver for over two weeks, caused more trauma than playing in the park? Might the state more prudently have issued a warning before taking custody?

Harrell is a single, African-American mother working minimum wage for a large corporation that provides no childcare. Thomas asserts, “she was treated as a criminal for letting her daughter do something that is relatively safe… people were angry at this woman for not being a full-time mom — for not fulfilling the unrealistic expectation that mothers should be with their children at all times. Those are moral judgments, but people weren't talking about it in moral terms. Instead, they were using the language of risk and danger.”

Sarnecka understands this as a “new legal standard of paranoid parenting” in recent decades that “enshrines a kind of class privilege… For parents who are working, who have more than one child... to say nothing of single parents — that model of parenting is absurd… This is very, very disturbing to me. It is basically criminalizing poverty and single parenthood.”

The study concludes there is an “accusatory streak in American parenting” very different from say, parenting norms in places such as Norway where mothers routinely leave a child safely in a stroller outside the grocery store while they briefly shop.

This irrational fear is systemic to parenting in our country, these authors argue. In other words, the uniformed passerby who reports “negligence,” the police, and the court system share the same unreasonable assumption. Sarnecka puts it this way: “What's interesting about this phobia about leaving a child alone is that (1) it is so widely shared, and (2) it has acquired the force of law — Harrell and Brooks were literally charged with crimes for allowing their children to be alone in circumstances that were, in their judgment as parents, age-appropriate and acceptably low-risk. I think the safety data show that their judgment was correct.”

The researchers hope their study prompts serious reflection on what they call the mentality of “harassing parents” and "punishing the bad mommy." Although more dads than ever are primary caregivers, the majority are still women. Is this parenting norm that criminalizes a parent for any lapse in 24/7 child supervision a form of cultural misogyny? Is this sadism dressed up as moral outrage?

Stanford claims the study's findings “have clear policy implications.” Surely no parent should ever leave a child in a situation that poses realistic threat, but this experiment shows that judgments being made by state employees are not being rigorously determined. The researchers suggest the decisions of police officers, DAs, and judges regarding criminal endangerment or neglect of a child are usually determined by personal prejudice and factors aside from objective evidence. Many such legal decisions are also made with broad strokes of understanding that ignore subtle differences among children that an attuned parents does not miss. For instance, every kid is unique with different levels of independence and responsibility at various ages. Those who have little intimate, first-hand knowledge of the individual child are forestalling parents’ decisions.

An emotional price is paid for excessive cultural anxiety over allowing children to be alone. The experimenters emphasize that such widespread unease about allowing for calculable risk undermines a child’s "self-efficacy" —a kid’s belief in his or her own ability and power to meet challenges and navigate a variety of situations. By expecting total and constant supervision of children, Sarnecka says, “we narrow their world in profound ways.”

Cory Doctorow/Flickr
Source: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

The first high-profile news story that contributed to the motivation for this study concerned Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mom who in 2008 let her 9-year-old, equipped with a cell phone and map take the subway home by himself. Skenazy, dubbed “The World’s Worst Mom,” describes what she understands as the “worst scenario first,” a collective syndrome of thinking of the worst thing that could happen to your kid and fixating on it (due mainly to the constant influx of media 24/7 which always picks the worst stories to tell.)

Skenazy argues Americans have wildly distorted fears when it comes to childrearing, which leads to our over-protection. She cites a few examples from her reality TV show where, in the style of Supernanny, she visits different families, addressing “parents too terrified to let their kids go.” Take the teenager who can only play on his skateboard on the front lawn, and even then he can only stand on it. There is the child suspended from school for being a potential "threat" for eating his pop tart into the shape of a gun.

Source: flickrnumi/Flickr

And do we really need infant knee pads to protect our children from crawling? Of course, the consumer market plays on parents' exaggerated fears for their children. But have we completely lost the distinction between reality and fantasy when it comes to childrearing?

Skenazy, argues we have forgotten rough and tumble is an important part of healthy childhood play, that psychological and physical development involves some amount of risk. Our fears of "the worst scenario first" have led us to underestimate the resiliency of the human spirit. This mother advocates “free-range parenting,” a philosophy of that encourages a child to develop self-reliance, of instilling in him or her the belief that the world is essentially a place of trust an emotional connection rather than an environment of fear and dread. Skenazy queries, “how young is too young to let our kids fly free?”


Study Published 23 Aug 2016 in the open access journal Collabra.

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