The XX Factor

Our Assessment of Parents Is More Informed by Moral Judgment Than Actual Risks

A fun and not necessarily dangerous activity for a boy to do on his own.


One of the biggest challenges for today’s parents is figuring out how much freedom to give their children. The range of permissibility, flanked by overbearing on one side and negligent on the other, is narrow and subject to change at any moment. One’s peers may consider hand-holding, and its many age-appropriate equivalents, compulsory in one scenario and excessive in another. The same goes for leaving children unattended, which can be perceived as everything from character-building to dangerous, depending on the particulars.

What makes this all the more complicated for parents is that outside assessments of parenting choices tend to be fueled more by moral judgment than empirical assessments of assumed safety risks. There’s no evidence that today’s children are less safe than children of past generations who were generally afforded more freedom by their parents—if anything there’s some evidence that they are safer. Nevertheless, today’s parents are being chastised, and arrested, for hands-off parenting choices that were once considered kosher.

A recently published study examines the relationship between perception of risk and moral outrage, and found that moral judgement heavily clouds our assessments of risk in the parenting choices of others. “The less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people think the child is in,” the study’s authors write.

In order to determine this, developmental psychologists Ashley Thomas and Barbara Sarnecka and philosopher Kyle Stanford, all from the University of California, Irvine, devised an experiment for which they made up six stories about parents leaving children of various ages unattended for various periods of time and asked their 1,500 participants to rate both safety risks and the morality of the parents involved. One story features a 10-month-old named Olivia who is left alone for 15 minutes to sleep in the car in a cool underground garage. Another features Susie, 8, who spends 45 minutes alone at a Starbucks one block away from her mother. In order to determine the effect of moral judgement on the perceived safety risk, the experimenters varied the reason why the child was left alone. Possible explanations include: unintentional, so the parent could work, so the parent could volunteer, so the parent could relax, and so the parent could have an affair.

As the authors predicted in the outset of the study, the parent’s reason for leaving their child unattended influenced the participants’ perception of the child’s safety risk. When parents left their children unintentionally, they were perceived to be in less danger than when their parents left them to meet a lover. The takeaway here is that moral judgements influence our perception of facts, a quirk of the human psyche that’s been examined before.

Making matters worse, the authors explain, is that these inflated fears can form “a sort of self-reinforcing feedback loop” and “lead to a new moral norm against leaving children alone, and then the need to justify moral condemnation of parents who violate this norm.” This will, in turn, lead “to even more inflated estimates of risk, generating even stronger moral condemnation of parents who violate the norm, and so on.” It’s an ominous prediction, one that, in addition to being really scary, suggests that something deeper is going on here than the cultural influence of uppity helicopter parents.

In order to figure out how to get out of here, we’ve got to figure out how we got here. As the authors point out, some of this hysteria is a result of availability heuristics, or how the “easier it is for people to call to mind examples of a phenomenon, the more frequently they think it happens.” They point to media coverage of child abductions and freak accidents like children dying in fires or suffocating in locked cars as the cause of our skewed perception. During an interview I did with a historian for another story on the subject a few years ago, he pointed to the missing children milk carton campaign of the 1980s. It served a whole generation of families a side of terror with their morning cereal.

But I suspect that many, if not most, of our fears are the result of something else: the fact that the majority of today’s moms work and we, as a country, have yet to figure out a reliable, affordable and widely accessible replacement for the caregiving work they used to do. This isn’t to say that children are more likely to be unattended as a result of women going to work; just that psychologically we’re still adapting to the reality that mom is less likely to be home during the day than she used to be.

The best way, then, to remedy this moral outrage directed towards parents is not, tempting as it may be, to match it with more outrage, but to demand better after-school, summer, and day care programs. A better care-taking infrastructure will rid of us our deep, and irrational, fears about unattended children by restoring our sense that there is somewhere they can go. Once that sinks in, the thought of a child unattended in the park or left home alone will be less likely to raise a red flag.