About the authors
P. Kyle Stanford is professor and chair of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California at Irvine.
Barbara W. Sarnecka is an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Irvine.
Ashley J. Thomas is a cognitive sciences graduate student at the University of California at Irvine.

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Kim Brooks was preparing to fly home with her two children, ages 4 and 1, after visiting her parents in 2012. She needed to replace a pair of headphones — crucial equipment for keeping her preschool son occupied during the 2 1/2-hour flight. As she left her parents’ house for the quick errand, her son asked to come along.

But when they got to the store, he refused to get out of the car, where he was playing on an iPad. Brooks faced a choice familiar to all parents. Option 1: Take away the iPad and force the kid out of the car and into the store. He was tired, hungry and out of his routine from visiting Grandma, Brooks later told us, so this would probably cause a monster tantrum as he was physically dragged through the parking lot, the electronics aisle and the checkout line. An errand she could finish in less than five minutes would become a 20-minute horror show. Option 2: Let him stay in the locked car and play on his iPad. It was a cool day, the car was parked right in front of the store, he couldn’t go anywhere, and she’d be right back. Brooks, rationally, did just that. She completed her errand, and they returned to her parents’ house and then flew home without incident.

So Brooks was astonished when, on the way home from the airport, she received a voice mail from the police informing her that a bystander had noticed her leaving her son in the car and had recorded it using a smartphone camera. She was eventually charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. On her lawyer’s advice, she agreed to mandatory community service and parenting education, afraid that if she tried to fight the charges, she could lose her kids.

It might have been natural for the bystander to assume Brooks’s son was in danger — after all, reports of crimes against children seem increasingly common. But actually the opposite is true: Crime of all types, including against children, has been steadily declining for decades, and there has never been a safer time to be a kid in America. Why, then, are so many of today’s parents — who walked to school and played outdoors unsupervised when they were young — afraid to give their own children the same freedom and independence?

In a recent study we conducted at the University of California at Irvine, we found striking evidence that our fears about the dangers of leaving children unsupervised have become inflated in recent years (even as the actual risks of doing so have declined) simply because the practice has become socially unacceptable. More specifically, we found that people consistently, but unconsciously, increase their estimates of the danger facing unsupervised children to better justify or rationalize the moral disapproval they feel toward parents who leave those children alone, even briefly.

In six experiments, we asked more than 1,500 participants to read five different stories in which a child is left alone for a short period of time. Situations ranged from a 10-month-old left asleep for 15 minutes in a cool car parked in an underground garage to an 8-year-old reading a book for 45 minutes at a coffee shop one block away from her parent.

Different participants read slightly different versions of each story, varying only in the reason for the parent’s absence. In one version of each story, the absence is unintentional: A mother (or, in a later experiment, a father) is kept away from her child because she is hit by a car and knocked unconscious. In the other four, the mom or dad chooses to leave the child alone in the same circumstances to go to work, volunteer for charity, relax or meet an illicit lover. After reading each story, participants estimated how much danger the child was in while the parent was away, on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest).

Survey respondents saw all of these situations as highly dangerous: The average risk estimate was 6.99, and the most common estimate in every situation was 10. But they judged children who were intentionally left alone to be in significantly greater danger than those whose parents left them unintentionally in otherwise identical circumstances.

This is especially striking because children left alone on purpose are in fact almost certainly safer than those left alone by accident. Parents who choose to leave kids alone can take steps to make the situation safer, such as reviewing safety rules, letting the child know when they will be back, and making sure that the child has a phone and knows how to contact them in an emergency. The fact that people make the opposite judgment — that kids are in more danger when parents leave on purpose — strongly suggests that their estimates of risk have been unconsciously inflated to help justify their stronger moral disapproval of parents who choose to leave children unsupervised.

Another sign that estimates of risk to unsupervised children are inflated to better justify negative judgments of their parents is the fact that in most of the experiments, children who were left alone when a parent went to meet an illicit lover were seen as being in greater danger than those left alone in precisely the same circumstances so a parent could go to work, volunteer for charity or simply relax. Although small, this difference was statistically significant, and it helps illustrate the relationship between subjects’ moral outrage at the parent’s conduct and their corresponding estimates of the risk or danger posed to a child by that conduct.

The same patterns emerged when mothers were replaced with fathers, with one striking difference: For fathers but not mothers, a work-related absence was judged to be significantly less dangerous than his other voluntary absences — in fact, it was seen as no more dangerous than his involuntary absence. This might suggest that work-related absences are seen as more obligatory and less voluntary for men than they are for women.

In two other experiments, we asked subjects to estimate not only how much danger the child was in but also the extent to which the parent had done something morally wrong. Ever optimistic about human rationality, we thought that giving subjects a way to express their moral judgments directly might help them separate those judgments from risk estimates and think more clearly about whether the children were actually in danger. In fact, though, just the opposite happened. When subjects were invited to make explicit moral judgments alongside their estimates of risk, those estimates became even more inflated by moral disapproval. Even parents in the “involuntary absence” stories — who turned away for just a moment (e.g., to pay for parking or return a library book) before being hit by a car — were not held blameless, receiving an average “moral wrongness” judgment of 3.05 on a 10-point scale. Overall, estimates of the danger facing a child closely followed subjects’ judgments of the wrongness of the parent’s actions.

In other words, people don’t just think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral — they also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.

But why have our beliefs about the dangers to unsupervised children changed so much in only a single generation that a new social norm has sprung up? The process may have started with the expansion of the news cycle throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when dramatically increased coverage of tragedies befalling children led people to overestimate the frequency of such events. As it became widely accepted that “good” parents don’t leave their kids alone for any reason, inflated perceptions of risk and increasing moral outrage became mutually reinforcing. To better rationalize or justify the condemnation of parents who violated this new norm, estimates of risk to children left alone became inflated. Those higher estimates of risk generated even greater outrage against parents of unsupervised children, producing in turn even larger estimates of risk to those children and so on, in a quickly escalating process.

The unfortunate consequences of this newfound hysteria include a hypervigilant style of parenting that is probably not good for either children or parents. Children lose out on the physical and mental-health benefits of spending long hours outdoors with friends, and parents cannot give children the age-appropriate, low-risk experiences with independence and responsibility that they need to become competent adults.

Perhaps even more troubling, this new social norm serves to enshrine a kind of class privilege: Parents with limited resources simply cannot afford to indulge the irrational insistence that their children be constantly supervised. To routinely subject such parents to the threat of legal action for leaving their children alone, even in objectively low-risk circumstances, does more than simply stigmatize their behavior: It effectively criminalizes their poverty.

The unreflective intuitions of neighbors, bystanders, police officers, social workers, district attorneys and judges concerning the danger to children left alone serve as the legal basis for increasingly frequent arrests, charges of neglect or endangerment and even incarceration of parents. But our results show that when people think they are judging danger to a child, much of what they are doing instead is imposing a moral judgment on that child’s parents. At the very least, our findings should caution those who create and enforce public policy to distinguish evidence-based assessments of risk to children from intuitive moral judgments about parents, and to avoid investing the latter with the force of law.