As a child, Ashley Thomas loved to go by herself to a meadow about a 10-minute walk from her house in Ojai, California. Playing on her own let her imagination soar. “You can pretend you’re the Queen of Sheba,” she says. Exploring made her feel independent and grown up.
Once, when she was in about the first grade, she even found a snake. “There’s no way I would have picked up a snake in front of my parents,” she says. “The reason I knew it was OK was I had also gone by myself to the library to take a snake safety class.” (Yes, a snake safety class.)
Ah, the olde-time memories of the days when kids could play on their own without someone posting a video online to shame their parents — or calling the police to have mom arrested and the children seized by social services. But Thomas isn’t an aging baby boomer telling tales to her grandkids. She’s just 30.
Only in the past decade or so has “no child left alone” become the social and legal norm in the U.S. A doctoral student in cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine, Thomas is the lead author of a recently published study designed to understand what’s going on. After all, under most circumstances, the objective risk to children left by themselves is extremely low. The chances that a stranger will abduct and kill or not return a child — the great fear driving the new norm — is about 0.00007 percent, or one in 1.4 million annually. It’s much more dangerous to drive a child somewhere, or even to walk with one across a parking lot, than to leave a kid alone in a well-ventilated car.
News reports and crime shows feed exaggerated fears. But Thomas and her co-authors note that legal norms needn’t follow inaccurate beliefs about risks.
“The fact that many people irrationally fear air travel does not result in air travel being criminalized,” they write. “Parents are not arrested for bringing their children with them on airplanes. In contrast, parents are arrested and prosecuted for allowing their children to wait in cars, play in parks, or walk through their neighborhoods without an adult.”
Indeed, parents safely make decisions every day without thinking about other tiny risks. “When you decide to park your car in a parking lot, you don’t look up at the roof to see if a sniper could hit you,” Thomas says. You don’t think about whether the store you’re taking your child into might get held up, nor should you. Yet leaving your kid alone, even for a short time in safe circumstances, can lead to a child abuse investigation. What’s going on?
The researchers suspected that the overestimating of risk reflects moral convictions about proper parenting. To separate the two instincts, they created a series of surveys asking participants to rate the danger to children left alone in five specific circumstances: a 2 1/2-year-old at home for 20 minutes eating a snack and watching “Frozen,” for instance, or a 6-year-old in a park about a mile from her house for 25 minutes. The reasons for the parent’s absence were varied randomly. It could be unintentional, for work, to volunteer for charity, to relax or to meet an illicit lover.
Because the child’s situation was exactly the same in all the intentional cases, the risks should also be identical. (Asked what the dangers might be, participants listed the same ones in all circumstances, with a stranger harming the child the most common, followed by an accident.) The unintentional case might be slightly more dangerous, because parents wouldn’t have a chance to make provisions for their absence such as giving the child a phone and emergency instructions or parking the car in the shade.
But survey respondents didn’t see things this way at all. “A mother’s unintentional absence was seen as safer for the child than a mother’s intentional absence for any reason, and a mother’s work-related absence was seen as more dangerous than an unintentional absence, but less dangerous than if the mother left to pursue an illicit sexual affair,” they write. The same was true for fathers, except that respondents rated leaving for work as posing no greater danger than leaving unintentionally. Moral disapproval informed beliefs about risks.
That was true even when the survey explicitly separated the two factors, first asking participants to rate leaving the child from 1 (nothing wrong) to 10 (highly unethical/immoral). People rated the risk higher when they first made a moral judgment.
“People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” the researchers write. “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.”
The result is a 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. These beliefs don’t just affect busybodies. They lead police, prosecutors, judges and jurors to overestimate risks.
Take what happened to Julie Koehler. She left her three daughters, ages 8, 5 and 4, watching a video in the minivan while she went into an Evanston, Ill., Starbucks for three minutes. When she saw a police officer talking to the girls through the open windows, she thought nothing of it, until he returned and her 8-year-old started crying. She rushed out of the store, and the situation deteriorated from there.
Koehler is a public defender in the homicide division. She knew she hadn’t broken any laws and she had two lawyers — her husband and mother — to call to the scene. She wasn’t arrested, but the state nonetheless initiated a child abuse investigation. Officials interrogated the kids, required a pediatrician’s exam, demanded that Koehler supply two references, and questioned them and her about her mental health, including whether she was on any medications. “What if I was taking an anti-depressant? Would that have affected the outcome of the case?” she asks.
The investigation determined that the report of abuse was “unfounded.” But it taught Koehler the hazards of leaving your kids for even the briefest time under the safest circumstances. The real stranger danger doesn’t come from would-be kidnappers. It comes from people who think they’re doing good.