Why Are We So Irrationally Afraid of Leaving Our Kids Alone?

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

The other day I went to pick up my dry cleaning with my children, ages 3 years old and 6 months, in the car. As I pulled into the strip mall, which is located near our home in Wheaton, Illinois, probably one of the safest suburbs on the planet, I went through the usual internal debate in my head: Should I just leave the kids in the car, lock the doors and open the windows a crack, and run in, or should I take each of them out of their carseats, walk them into the store — my daughter in my arms and my son’s hand held in mine — and attempt to pay for the bill and carry out the clothes without anyone getting hit by a car?

I opted to leave them in the car. It was just so much easier, and it’s not like it was super hot outside or they were going to be in there for an hour. I would be in the store for two minutes. And, I was literally parked right outside of the business’s front door and could see the car from inside.

So why did I feel so guilty every second I was in the dry cleaners?

The entire 120 seconds I was inside the store, the possible outcomes of this lazy decision raced through my head, but as I knew my children were in no inherent danger due to the fact that I was standing 15 feet away, my biggest fear was that a passer-by would take a photo or a video and have me arrested.

I go through this scenario nearly every day: at my son’s church preschool, at the playground, or even in the driveway of my own home. Every single time I leave both or one of them in the car they have been totally fine, but I have been left feeling sort of dirty, like an awful parent, playing Russian roulette with my children’s lives. While my children are clearly too young to be left home alone, I hear my friends with older kids talking about leaving theirs while they run errands, and wonder: At what age is it safe to leave a kid without parental supervision?

When I was younger, back in the ’80s, my parents left me in the car unattended all of the time and nothing bad ever happened to me. “Keep the doors locked and don’t get out no matter what,” they would instruct me, as they ran into a store for 10 minutes or so. Up until recent years, this was the norm. It was also totally acceptable for my friends and I to walk ourselves to school or to the playground, and to be left unattended for hours at a time when we were of elementary school age.

But for some reason, in 2016, things are different and parents are actually being arrested for leaving their children unattended. Leaving your child alone, whether in the car or at home, is now a crime.

Susan Terrillion, a 55-year-old mother, “allowed her 9-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl to stay in their vacation rental alone while she went to pick up food,” Police Lt. Jaime B. Riddle said, as reported in USA Today.

The family was vacationing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in a rental on a street called “Country Club Drive,” which you would assume is a pretty safe neighborhood. The witness told officers that he saw the children trying to get their dog back into the house, after it ran into the street in front of his car. He asked the kids where their mother was and they told him. So he called the cops. Terrillion was arrested, charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of her children, and released on a $500 unsecured bail.

There may be more to the story, or not, but in recent years there have been a rash of arrests similar to this one: the parents who left their 2-year-old home alone to play Pokémon Go; the single mother, Debra Harrell, who was arrested, jailed, and had her daughter, 9, taken away from her for letting her little girl play alone at a park while she was at work; and Kim Brooks, who was charged with a crime for leaving her 4-year-old son in a car for five minutes on a cool day while she ran into a store. Most of these stories involve a “good samaritan” not minding his or her own business, witnessing these unattended children, and reporting the “crime” to the police.

Inspired by these incidents and the overall “parenting norm” that Americans have adopted in which every child is expected to be under constant direct adult supervision, paired with statistics that violent crime rates have decreased in the last few decades, Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka decided to do a little research, and their findings were published Tuesday in open access journal Collabra.

The group conducted experiments with over 1,300 online participants, creating a series of scenarios in which a parent left a child unattended for a period of time. The participants determined how much risk of harm was done to the child during each period, as well as judged the morality of the parent in question. Then, experimenters changed the reason the child was left alone.

For instance, in one of these scenarios a child is left alone in the car after his mom is hit by a car while returning a shopping cart in the parking lot. In another case, they are left alone so the mother could go to work, volunteer, relax, or meet a lover.

Researchers discovered that it was not the actual act of the child being left in the car that affected an individual’s assessment of the risk, but the reasoning behind it — whether or not they believed the parent had done something immoral. If the child had been left in the car unintentionally, they were generally assumed to be moral, and if intentionally, immoral. The level of perceived risk associated with each scenario followed the same trend as perceived morality – the more immoral someone believed a parent to be, the more they believed the child was at risk.

The authors boiled it down to this: “People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

During a QA with NPR, the authors explained that the lesson they hope people will take away from their study, in a nutshell, is that we need to have more faith in each others’ parenting instead of judging them irrationally, and we also need to stop trying to “punish the bad mommy.”

They also hope that people will start reassessing the actual danger in situations than the perceived. For instance, far more children are injured in parking lots than by being left alone in a car for a few minutes. They also hope that it will influence government policies to shift, so that parents who leave their children alone in non-dangerous situations aren’t criminalized.

They also point out the importance of allowing children to take risks and do things on their own. Because we are so irrationally afraid that something bad is going to happen to our children, we prevent them from “self-efficacy” — building confidence in their own ability to handle whatever comes up and succeed in a variety of situations.

Should I feel guilty for leaving my kids alone in the car? No, I haven’t done anything wrong.

Will I do it again in the future? Maybe not, but not because I believe they are in any actual danger. I am more afraid that I am in danger, of being arrested and having them taken away from me.

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