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Why Do We Punish Parents For Letting Their Kids Go Outside Unattended?

Being outside alone is far less dangerous for kids than riding in a car, but no one calls the cops on parents who drive with their children.

Why Do We Punish Parents For Letting Their Kids Go Outside Unattended?

[Photo: Francesca Russell/Getty Images]

In the U.S., the chance of having your teen or child abducted is vanishingly small, around 0.00007%, or one in 1.4 million annually, according to Daniel Gardner in his book The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. The most common cause of preventable death for kids is car crashes, so it’s actually far more dangerous to drive your child to and from school (perhaps to prevent them from being kidnapped) than it is to let them walk.

And yet moral outrage accompanies every case of a child being left alone. In a new report, called "No Child Left Alone," published by the University of California, three authors look at how these moral judgments affect parents’ behavior, and how interfering busybodies who call the cops on parents when they, say, leave their kids in the car while they hop into a store, are actually putting children at greater risk.

"In recent decades, Americans have adopted a parenting norm in which every child is expected to be under constant direct adult supervision," says the report. "Parents who violate this norm by allowing their children to be alone, even for short periods of time, often face harsh criticism and even legal action."

[Photo: Ferguson & Katzman Photography/Halo Images]

Let’s begin with an example. In 2014, a bystander called the cops when they saw two kids (brother and sister Rafi Meitiv, age 10, and Dvora, age 6) walking alone. They were on their way back home from the local park, a journey of a mile. The cops picked them up and called in Child Protective Services, "who threatened to remove the children from their home unless their father signed a ‘safety plan’ promising never to leave the children unsupervised," says the report. "Don’t you realize how dangerous the world is? Don’t you watch TV?" the cop said to the father.

The police, it should be noted, drove the kids home, putting them in more danger than had they let them walk.

So why are people so fast to judge? And why are we so bad at estimating the real risk? Part of the problem is media coverage, and even TV drama. We see so many stories featuring kidnapped children, both on the evening news, or the latest episode of Criminal Minds, that we assume that it happens more often than it really does. "The easier it is for people to call to mind examples of a phenomenon, the more frequently they think it happens," says the report. Plane crashes get way more coverage than car crashes, so more people are scared of flying than of riding in a car.

"But note one key difference," says the report. "The fact that many people irrationally fear air travel does not result in air travel being criminalized. 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."

To understand this, we need to look at something called moral dumbfounding, which ethicist Daniel Jacobson describes as "dogmatic insistence on a moral judgment for which no good reasons can be given." People, says our report, leap to judge, and then use facts and reasoning to justify those judgments. The authors of the report—Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka—hypothesize that "people adopt and/or modify their factual beliefs so as to better rationalize their intuitive moral judgments."

To test this view, they carried out an experiment to see if we think that children are in more danger if their parents leave them alone for a morally unacceptable reason. To do this, they gave participants a questionnaire with vignettes describing situations where a child was left alone by his or her parents. For instance, a 10-month-old alone for 15 minutes "asleep in the car in a gym’s cool underground parking garage," a six-year-old in "a park about a mile from her house" for 25 minutes, and so on.

The vignettes differed only in the reasons for the parents’ absence: unintentional, work, volunteer charity work, relaxing, or meeting an illicit lover. While the results showed that the estimated risk was high in all cases, it was predictably lower for parents who were absent because of an accident, and highest for kids left alone because their mother was off meeting her lover.

"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," says the report.

This, and further experiments detailed in the report, demonstrates that our moral disapproval strongly affects our assessment of the risk, leaving our assessments way off. After all, is a kid left under a shady tree in a park while his parent canoodles with a beau really more at risk than a kid in the same situation, only whose parent has suffered an accident? The opposite is probably true, in fact.

This problem, says the authors, leads to a feedback loop in which the ever-inflated estimates of risk lead to greater moral outrage when kids are left alone, leading to even worse risk estimates as we justify our even higher levels of moral judgement.

What can be done about this? As long as your community keeps reporting you to the police for letting your children play outside, alone, or walk to school with their friends or their brothers and sisters, not much. But things are changing. The Every Student Succeeds Act has an amendment tucked away on page 857 that rules that nothing shall "prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission," and protects parents who allow their kids to travel to and from school "by a means the parents believe is age appropriate."

To older readers, who may have grown up in the 1970s or 1980s, the need to create legislation that allows kids to walk the streets alone, or to play outside, seems absurd. But at least now we know why our nosey, do-gooder neighbors are calling the cops on our kids, and we have the beginnings of some laws to protect us from their moralizing. It’s a start.

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