The perils of condemning parents for exposing kids to supposed dangers that aren't real

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Meitiv family got into serious trouble with Maryland authorities last year for letting their 10 year old son Rafi (right) and 6 year old daughter Dvora (left) walk home from the park by themselves.
The Meitiv family got into serious trouble with Maryland authorities last year for letting their 10 year old son Rafi (right) and 6 year old daughter Dvora (left) walk home from the park by themselves.

NPR has an interesting story about a recent study that highlights the extent to which we tend to condemn parents for exposing their children to supposed risks—even when the risk in question is largely imaginary:

Many parents who grew up playing outdoors with friends, walking alone to the park or to school, and enjoying other moments of independent play are now raising children in a world with very different norms.

In the United States today, leaving children unsupervised is grounds for moral outrage and can lead to criminal charges.

What's changed?

One possibility is that the risks to children have changed. What was safe in the past may be unsafe today, placing children in genuine danger. But, for the most part, the data don't support this. Statistics from the National Crime Victimization Survey, for example, suggest that violent crime rates have decreased since the 1970s (and not only when it comes to children, whom one could argue are benefiting from the increased oversight).

The odds that a child will be abducted by a stranger—one of the fears that motivates constant supervision—are tiny in comparison with the odds that a child will be injured in a car accident. Yet parents aren't under investigation for choosing to drive their kids to school.

So here's another possibility. It's not that risks to children have increased, provoking an increase in moral outrage when children are left unattended. Instead, it could be that moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it's judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk.

This may seem to get things the wrong way around, but it's supported by new research available Monday in the open access journal Collabra. In a series of clever experiments, authors Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford and Barbara Sarnecka find evidence that shifting people's moral attitudes toward a parent influences the perceived risk to that parent's unattended child.

Being excessively judgmental of parents' behavior may not be a terrible thing in itself. The problem is that such attitudes lead to laws and regulations that can easily get parents into serious legal trouble for engaging in perfectly ordinary—and safe—childcare practices. In one highly publicized case last year, Maryland authorities forcibly detained a 10 year old boy and his 6 year old sister merely because their parents had allowed them to walk home from the park by themselves. The Child Protective Services officials who did this probably imposed greater risk on the children by detaining them than the extremely small risk of walking home in a safe, middle-class neighbhorhood. Such nanny-state second-guessing of parents often creates more risk than it prevents, wastes public resources, and impedes sensible parenting practices that give children the chance to do activities on their own and develop greater initiative.

This kind of overregulation also violates the constitutional rights of parents. In decisions going back to the 1920s, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment gives parents a right "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control." In Troxel v. Granville (2000), the Court reaffirmed the "fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children," which it called "perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court." A plurality of four justices emphasized that state officials must apply a strong presumption that parents' decisions about the upbringing of their children are correct, and cannot abridge parental control over child-raising based on "mere disagreement" with the parents' choices. In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued for an even stronger presumption in favor of parental rights.

Unfortunately, these Supreme Court rulings are often ignored by child welfare officials, and many parents are unwilling or unable to fight prolonged legal battles to vindicate their rights. We need to do more to protect parents' rights in the legal system. But we should also work to free ourselves from the evidence-free judgmentalism that helps make such abuses of official power possible in the first place.

UPDATE: The title slightly oversimiplifies, in the sense that most of the risks in question are not literally nonexistent, but merely so infinitesmally small that it makes no sense to compel parents to avoid them. Indeed, efforts to regulate them often create greater risk than any they prevent, as was true in the Meitiv case last year, among others. However, there is almost no activity that is literally risk-free, whether for children or for adults.