There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.
And there’s never been a time to be more judged -sometimes criminally – for your decisions as a parent.
Most parents love their children and don’t want anything to happen to them. But at the same time, we’re constantly bombarded by the media about all kinds of horrifying pitfalls, and recent news stories would have you believe we are all neglectful, stupid, and incompetent. The things most of us did as kids would literally get someone arrested today.
And I do mean literally. Take, for instance, the story of a mother who *gasp* left her 8 and 9-year-old alone when she ventured out to pick up dinner at a restaurant that was a few miles away. The kids were fine…other than possibly being traumatized by seeing their mother being arrested for “endangering their welfare” after a busybody called the police.
Or, the case of a woman who dared to let her 3-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew walk “unsupervised” to a McDonald’s that was less than a quarter mile away from her home and was promptly arrested after a tattletale notified authorities.
Parents are being lectured, scorned, and even arrested for letting their children do, well – what used to be considered normal childhood things, like walking to school, playing in the backyard, or waiting in the car for a few minutes.
Life in the US is safer than ever for children, which is why the rising trend of overprotective, overbearing, and over-controlling “helicopter parenting” is baffling.
And, other parents, school employees, and police officers are helicopter-parenting parents. Last year, a Maryland couple learned this the hard way when a neighbor called the police to report seeing their children, ages 6 and 10, walking home alone from a park in their neighborhood.
Peter Gray, the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life” and professor of psychology at Boston College, told Public Radio International that overprotecting children from the dangers of the outside world puts them at greater risk for psychological problems including anxiety and depression:
My historical research on this question suggests that there’s never really been a time or place in history, aside from times of slavery and intense child labor, when children have been less free than they are today in our society. This is a very, very serious issue. When we don’t allow children the opportunity to have the kinds of adventures and free play that they really need for their healthy development, they don’t develop emotionally and socially as healthy as they otherwise would.
Gray made another point that would seem to be common sense (if common sense were, indeed, common):
If we overprotect kids, if we coddle them and if we don’t allow them the freedoms that they need to develop, then they grow up into young adults who are not prepared for the kind of independence that is required of them when they leave home.
So, the question remains: If, in fact, the US is safer now than ever, why are parents so afraid to give their children a bit of freedom?
A new study sought to answer that question.
Conducted at the University of California, Irvine, and published in the journal Collabra, the study uncovered an interesting finding: It appears that our fears of leaving children alone have become systematically exaggerated in recent decades – not because the practice has become more dangerous, but because it has become socially unacceptable.
Ashley Thomas, lead author, said,
Without realizing it, we have consistently increased our estimates of the amount of danger facing children left alone in order to better justify or rationalize the moral disapproval we feel toward parents who violate this relatively new social norm.
From the press release:
The survey-based study found that children whose parents left them alone on purpose – to go to work, help out a charity, relax or meet an illicit lover – were perceived to be in greater danger than those whose parents were involuntarily separated from them.
The researchers presented survey participants with five different scenarios in which a child was left alone for less than an hour. Situations ranged from a 10-month-old who was left asleep for 15 minutes in a cool car parked in a gym’s underground garage to an 8-year-old reading a book alone at a coffee shop a block from home for 45-minutes.
The survey participants saw all of these situations as quite dangerous for children: The average risk estimate was 6.99, and the most common ranking in all scenarios was 10.
But despite identical descriptions of each set of circumstances in which children were alone, those left alone on purpose were estimated to be in greater danger than those whose parents left them alone unintentionally.
Risk estimates closely followed their judgments of whether mothers in the scenarios had done something morally wrong.
Barbara Sarnecka, study co-author, said:
In fact, children left alone on purpose are almost certainly safer than those left alone by accident, because parents can take steps to make the situation safer, like giving the child a phone or reviewing safety rules. The fact that people make the opposite judgment strongly suggests that they morally disapprove of parents who leave their children alone, and that disapproval inflates their estimate of the risk.
Even parents who left children alone involuntarily were not held morally blameless, receiving an average “moral wrongness” judgment of 3.05 on a 10-point scale.
And, when the researchers replaced mothers in the stories with fathers, they found an interesting pattern: For fathers, a work-related absence was treated more like an involuntary absence, but this was not the case for mothers. This may be because work tends to be viewed as more of an obligation and less of a voluntary choice for men.
Sarnecka described the implications of the findings:
Exaggerating the risks of allowing children some unsupervised time has significant costs besides the loss of children’s independence, freedom and opportunity to learn how to solve problems on their own. As people have adopted the idea that children must never be alone, parents increasingly face the possibility of arrest, charges of abuse or neglect, and even incarceration for allowing their children to play in parks, walk to school or wait in a car for a few minutes without them.
At a minimum, these findings should caution those who make and enforce the law to distinguish evidence-based and rational assessments of risk to children from intuitive moral judgments about parents – and to avoid investing the latter with the force of law.
Is it any wonder that so many young people seem to be having great difficulty becoming competent, independent adults? How can we expect kids who have never been left alone for 5 minutes or had to prepare dinner for the family to suddenly launch successfully into adulthood?