Why Are We So Afraid to Leave Our Children Alone? Because We're Also Afraid of the Neighbors

Why are we so afraid to leave our children alone?  I know I'm guilty, though when my son was about 10, he wanted to be left home alone!

But it's turning out that the moral judgments of parents affect perceptions of risk

According to newswise.com, leaving a child unattended is considered taboo in today’s intensive parenting atmosphere, despite evidence that American children are safer than ever. "So why are parents denying their children the same freedom and independence that they themselves enjoyed as children? A new study by University of California, Irvine social scientists suggests 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."

Think, Tiger Mom.

When I was a kid, we rode bikes and hiked through the woods of our neighborhood all day and often into the night, hanging out at each other's homes when our own parents had no clue where we were.  It was all good, back then.  Granted, we didn't have people snatching kids off street corners or people blowing themselves up at airports and restaurants (maybe we just didn't know about it!).

"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,” the website quotes Ashley Thomas, cognitive sciences graduate student and lead author of the work, published online this month in the open-access journal Collabra.

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.

“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,” says Barbara Sarnecka, study co-author and associate professor of cognitive sciences. No cell phones in my day!  “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.”

This is also born out in participants’ view of children left alone by a parent meeting an illicit lover as being in significantly more danger than children left alone in precisely the same circumstances by a parent who leaves in order to work, volunteer for charity or just relax.


People’s risk estimates closely followed their judgments of whether mothers in the scenarios had done something morally wrong. 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.

So are we the ones putting our kids in danger by thinking they are?

I admit, I'm an over-protective mom, probably because I had my child so late in life.  But when he wanted to start staying home by himself while I went to meetings at night, and his dad was working late, I slowly gave in and when I got home, he was usually contentedly watching TV, a bag of microwave popcorn by his side (uh oh, will I now be judged about that?!).

I believe it's made him a little more self-reliant.  He does his thing and if there's a problem, he calls my cell.  So far, it's been smooth sailing.

 



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