Free-Range Kids

Breakthrough Study Explains Why We Arrest Moms for Putting Kids in Nearly Non-Existent 'Danger'

Moral disapproval trumps facts.


Hongqi Zhang (aka Michael Zhang) / Dreamstime

America is experiencing a bizarre disconnect between real and perceived danger when it comes to kids. But why?

Why are we arresting moms for putting their kids in "danger" for doing the things our own moms did without anyone batting an eye, like letting us walk to school, or play outside, or wait at home a short while? Recall that just recently a mom was arrested for letting her kids, 8 and 9, wait at the condo for under an hour while she went to pick up dinner.

Well, a new study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine may have figured it out. "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," as the university put it in a news release.

In other words, the only socially acceptable mom has become a mom who never takes her eyes off her kids. With that in mind, whenever we see an unsupervised child, we automatically assume the child has a bad mom. And once we are harshly judging that mom, our minds unconsciously judge her "crime" extra harshly, too. We believe it to be more dangerous than it actually is. So it's a feedback loop: unsupervised kids have terrible moms, terrible moms endanger their kids.

Remember that viral video of a man shrieking at a mother who let her child wait in the car a few minutes while she went into a phone store—a store with a plate glass window through which she could keep an eye on her kid? The videotaper was screaming as if the mom had thrown her child down a well. Many of the comments were just as vicious—"Shame on that horrible mother" was a mild one—even though the child was demonstrably fine.

But our perceptions have nothing to do with the world actually becoming more dangerous (crime is at a 50-year low), or even the legitimate fear of children getting overheated in a car (moms get yelled at for leaving their children for the few seconds it takes to return a grocery cart). Instead, our perceptions have everything to do with our seriously screwed up "moral intuition."

To test that notion, UC-Irvine researchers Ashley J. Thomas, P. Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka asked 1200 people to rate how much danger kids were in on a scale of one to ten, in different situations. The only thing the researchers varied was the reason the kids were left unsupervised.

In one survey question, for instance, they presented the story of a child waiting 30 minutes in a car because her mom had been dropping off a book at the library but was hit by a car and temporarily knocked unconscious.

Other groups of survey takers were told the child was left in the car the same amount of time, but the reason for mom's absence was different: She was working, or volunteering, or relaxing, or off to see her lover.

While all five groups of respondents felt the child was in danger, the group that judged the danger the lowest was the group told that the mom was unconscious—in other words, that the mom did not intend to leave her child unattended, it was an accident.

The groups told that the mom was doing anything else—working, volunteering, relaxing—felt the child was in more danger, and the group told that the mom was having an affair felt the child was in the most danger.

So the perceived danger quotient went up when the respondents felt more judgmental toward the mom.

"People felt it was more immoral to leave a child voluntarily than involuntarily," Prof. Sarnecka, a developmental psychologist, told me in a phone interview (after thanking me for Free-Range Kids, the site that "made our research possible"). "And once you think only a bad mom would leave her kid in that situation, then your belief about how dangerous it is goes up."

When the researchers substituted dads for moms in these scenarios, the dads' work-related absences were treated the same as their unintentional absences: Their kids were perceived at the very lowest level of danger. But when women left their kids to do some work, the perceived danger increased.

Unconsciously we seem to consider moms as selfishly, immorally choosing to endanger their kids by going to work. Working mom = evil mom.

The dad test sample was small. The researchers intend to delve into it deeper the next time around. But even the results of the mom-only surveys seem to show that Americans believe the only decent way to raise a child is with a full-time mother never taking her eyes off her kids. Only June Cleaver types get a pass.

Anyone else—impoverished moms, single moms, moms with big families—are seen as putting their kids in danger simply because they cannot directly supervise every kid every second.

Since many moms do work, and since all moms make daily choices as to when to let the kids wait at home, or in the car, or get themselves home from soccer, this exaggerated idea of child endangerment has very real world consequences. Cops seeing kids at the park think the mom is negligent. Child Protective Services represenatives over-estimate the danger to latchkey kids. The result is arrested parents, and arrested development of the kids.

"People are very attached to the idea that they are rational beings," says Sarnecka. But as the study shows, they aren't. They are swayed by unconscious judgments. "It would be really great if people could be rational about their irrationality."

Until that happens, we cannot have open-ended laws that defer to an authority's spidey sense. Instead, we must insist that a child be in provable danger of immediate, indisputable, statistically likely and egregious harm before parents be judged negligent.

Because otherwise they'll just be judged, period—especially the moms, and especially the moms with fewer resources. And that harsh judgment will suffice for a verdict of guilty.

NEXT: Brickbat: Reaping What They Sowed

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  1. Don’t get me going on my theories of modern parents.

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  2. So, people are assholes who can’t mind their own business. Not too surprising. Or encouraging.

    1. Stupid, hysterical, self-righteous assholes who can’t mind their own business. And who get to vote on our rights.

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    2. And they real shocker: they moralize.

      1. And if she left her kiddo for 30 minutes to attend a political rally of the Libertarian party… Kiddo’s danger was multiplied by ten gazillion!!!!

    3. It’s called the Gladys Kravitz Effect.

  3. It’s the power of victimhood (by proxy) with a little superiority smugness mixed in.

    1. My takeaway from the whole study is pretty simple: women are supposed to stay at home and give up their careers in order to raise children, while men are supposed to be at work from 5am-8pm earning money to support them. If that isn’t what happens, then they are irresponsible and need to be arrested.

      So these people are now moving us backwards socially. I would love to see the self-identified politics of their samples, since I can’t even tell if these are progressives or religious fundamentalists anymore. The overlap on a Venn diagram is almost 100% at this point outside of a few niche issues like abortion. We should be afraid. Very afraid.

      1. I can’t even tell if these are progressives or religious fundamentalists anymore.

        Yep. Progressives are religious fundamentalists, the only difference is they call their God “Government” and their prophets are Top. Men.

        1. Yes! This is why I must now lead us all in a Song of Praise…

          Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

          Government loves me, This I know,
          For the Government tells me so,
          Little ones to GAWD belong,
          We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          My Nannies tell me so!

          GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
          Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
          Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
          And gives me all that I might need!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          My Nannies tell me so!

          DEA, CIA, KGB,
          Our protectors, they will be,
          FBI, TSA, and FDA,
          With us, astride us, in every way!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
          My Nannies tell me so!

          1. I’m going to teach your song to my four year old to sing at the school talent show. I fully expect both him and me to be tazered. Pray for our immortal souls, brother.

  4. Who’s theis “We” you keep speaking of, and why is this terrible person not locked up?

  5. Let’s get real. If we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly stop babies from dying in hot cars. Or are you anti science?

    1. No just anit-child.

      1. Anti-child science.

  6. “Our fears of leaving children alone have become systematically exaggerated … because it has become socially unacceptable.”

    That is some *mighty* fine research.

  7. Until that happens, we cannot have open-ended laws that defer to an authority’s spidey sense. Instead, we must insist that a child be in provable danger of immediate, indisputable, statistically likely and egregious harm before parents be judged negligent.

    Either that, or very prescriptive, cookbook-style statutes delineating exactly how much time, how far away, how old, etc.

    1. Texas already has something like that… if I remember correctly, a child may be left unsupervised in a car for up to five minutes. That either can be seen as nitpicking, or something to point to when busybodies get up in your business.

      (Citation: Texas Penal Code, Title 5, Chapter 22, Section 10)

      1. New York has no law regarding how old a child has to be to be left unattended for a given period of time. Yet just because it is not prohibited does not mean it is allowed. That is left to the kangaroo court of moral judgement.

        Welcome to the new Middle Ages. The Enlightenment was but a spark in the long twilight of human history.

  8. Many Americans wanted a Nanny-State. They got a Nanny-State. Complete with helicopter parents, indoctrination of kids to value lack of choice and consequences, abhorrent public education system and many people tolerating mass surveillance.

    Logical addition: Arrest parents for changing diapers and child neglect which negatively affect families and the children they are “protecting”.

  9. I blame the internet and the public school system. With 6 billion people on the planet, one-in-a-million occurrences occur all the time but now people are aware they happen and they’re very bad at math. Used to be only a few people knew of a kid that walked down the street to his friend’s house and got eaten by a wolf and now everybody knows of a kid that walked down the street to his friend’s house and got eaten by a wolf. They don’t realize that’s not due to an increase in the number of kids getting eaten by wolves, it’s due to a massive increase in the number of people knowing about that one single kid. Sure, 50 years ago our moms let us play outside by ourselves, but 50 years ago there wasn’t one single story on the internet about anything bad that could happen to a kid playing outside by himself, was there? And now there’s hundreds.

    1. You mean there are not millions more wolves and billions of dead kids? Haha.

    2. Agree Jerry; social media has amplified everything from sex trafficing, cime and racism to child endangerment. When someone sees something that happens in BFE they immediately internalize to themselves, their location, their children, and of course your children. And then add all the moralizing and preaching about prevention of every conceivable bad outcome and how we all have to be more vigilant, which of course leads to “collective responsibility” for everyone to delve into everyone else’s business.

      It seems like a perfect set up for society by Orwell. And I do not thing that the implications of social media are by no means at a plateau, especially as a justification for government to “do something” about perceptions of problems, facts be damned.

      1. Not gonna lie, but part of my “free-range” parenting style is that I assume I can rely on most people we encounter to be decent enough to at least be as effective as I would be if someone grabs my kid and he starts screaming.

        Part of my teaching my kids safety involves punching and screaming if I’m not in the immediate vicinity, lol.

    3. I blame the internet and the public school system. With 6 billion people on the planet, one-in-a-million occurrences occur all the time but now people are aware they happen and they’re very bad at math

      This. But it’s as much about what we don’t know and the concept of newsworthiness. If we also knew, with as much case-by-case detail, about the thousand kids that drowned and the ten thousand kids that died in car accidents, we would have a very different sense of the danger.

      1. Statistically, according to the CDC, a child is about 13 X more likely to drown than to die of a gun shot wound; and yet we never hear calls for banning backyard swimming pools, those nefarious and attractive nuisances that sit in people’s back yards 24/7, just beckoning for their next victim…of course what gets showcased is indeed highly selective.

        Meanwhile my AR is safely secured in a safe unless I take it out and it is under my control.

        1. But your kid is probably dying in an overheated car RIGHT NOW. But you don’t know that or care because you are playing with your AR-15

          1. Fortunately both of my daughters are now adults, and somehow survived being raised by the looneytarian father, in spite of fact that I actually permitted them to walk to the end of a short small town block to their elementary school playground, unsupervised. This was up until 10 years ago; I’m sure some idiot with current mass perspective on child safety would now report me and they would be taken away for their own safety.

            1. My very rural small town park has cameras in it or at least there are signs stating such. Fuck it….the village can watch my kids when they are at the park since it saw fit to assume the role of overseer to watch them with state surveillance. And if they get hurt, I will sue the shit out of them for failing.

              1. It takes a village.

    4. In addition to this you also have to consider that societal improvements, such as better healthcare, more wealth, and less crime will have skewed people’s perceptions of what is acceptable risk. When the world is riskier and you are more familiar with death you are less likely to consider children being left on their own to be dangerous, because your greater familiarity with danger puts things into perspective. A safer world produces people who expect that safety is the norm, and they adjust their tolerances for danger accordingly. It’s no surprise that 50 years ago people were more tolerant of free-range kids, considering they were raised by people who had fought Nazis and were in turn raised by people who had been through WW1 and the 1918 flu pandemic. Further, people used to have more kids, so not only did they have spares they also were incapable of paying too much attention to any single child.

    5. Welcome to the Internet Age! Where group-think and mass hysteria are all the rage!

      1. Speaking of hysteria, bring in the clowns.

        1. All clowns are child rapists. Saw that on Twitter, so it must be real.

    6. In fact, the collective paranoia began a long time ago, with TV. The internet just gives us a faster, wider and more honed version of the nightly news to get folks worked up. Just to fill up the empty slot every evening we get stories of gruesome murders imported from the U.S. and China here in Italy. And as smartphone video spreads the available material balloons. It’s easy to be scared 24/7 these days.

  10. I was working at something at home one Sunday and my wife and younger son were at a birthday party. My older son, 12, asked if he could go to the park, which is about one block from our house. I said fine.

    About an hour later I get a call from my wife asking if I said Alex could go to the park. I said yes and asked why. One of the moms saw Alex (who again is 12 but looks about 15) by himself in the park and called my wife.

    As I said this is our neighborhood park, about a block from our house. My son has been going to that park since he was born. We live in Chicago, but not in the murder part (in fact the part of the city is so low crime that the local alderman insisted the police step patrols after someone was threatened with a knife).

    1. When I was 12 years old I took a 400 mile train trip to my grandparents house by myself, including 2 layovers to change trains. I also carried a rifle in my luggage.

      I guess I was just lucky to get there without being molested or kidnapped by a stranger or accidentally shooting myself.

  11. Yesterday I was sitting in a clinic waiting room for several hours while a friend was having malignant pieces of her face removed. The TV was playing Rachel Ray who had an interminable segment on ‘stranger danger’.

    The takeaway was that you should NEVER allow your kid to walk alone anywhere. Filled with tales of evil guys (by the thousands, by their telling) driving up, offering candy (hear this OMWC–they’re on to you) and snatching thousands of kids. I thought about yelling at the TV, but the other folks getting their faces carved might not have appreciated it.

  12. While we’re on the subject of parenting, please don’t bring your kid to the bar with you.

    1. Oh I did that this past weekend. It was “kids open mic day”, so we had a legit reason. It was pretty cool watching kids rock out a bar full of fat guys watching football. I think we need more kids in bars so we can get some free music and don’t have to charge a cover.

    2. Oh, so you expect me to go get my own drinks!? WTF is this country coming to.

      1. I took my young son to a neighborhood Irish pub. The barmaids loved him. He fell asleep at the bar just like any other patron.

  13. I wait anxiously for the day when it becomes “socially unacceptable” to vote to have men with guns go to one’s neighbors and demand money for one’s favorite causes.

    1. You’re gonna be waiting a long, long time.

  14. This is not limited to children. One night at 11:30 PM, I left my dog in my car while I went into a drug store for 5 minutes. When I came out, a woman was waiting next to my car to berate me for endangering my poor dog because it as summer and dogs died when left in a car. Another time, I left my two dogs in a parking garage on an 85 degree day. When I returned to my car, two of LA’s finest were waiting for me. LA PD had received a complaint about endangered dogs in a car. However, the shade on an 85 degree day in a car with open windows endangers no one.

    1. On more than one occasion I’ve gotten a similar ‘Did you just say you tossed your dog down a well?’ expression for saying that I make my dogs ride in the trunk of my car. Which is funny because if I let them in the front seat where they could fuck everything up and seriously obstruct my vision at a moment’s notice everyone would be okay with it.

      I can’t wait until one of these worried parent-by-proxies catches a hard right if not a bullet. I’m pretty sure you could pull off self-defense pretty convincingly with a “You’ve got video footage of my kids, huh?” defense.

      1. mad.casual
        You must have been a Romney voter even though you thought he was a little soft for using the top of the car instead.

  15. At the same time we read about people putting their kid on a bison at Yellowstone or trying to get a selfie with a bull elk. Alot folks with a distorted perception of what’s dangerous.

  16. I don’t think we’ll be able to change judgments about what’s socially acceptable and unacceptable. Individuals can’t move that rock uphill so easily, especially where agreement about what’s acceptable develops over so many years.

    We can, however, try to change the way police departments _respond_ to these judgments. That’s their job: to sort out dangerous situations from safe situations. So far, they seem to take the caller’s word for it: if the caller thinks the situation is dangerous, the police think so, too. They’re going to err on the side of safety, because if they don’t come down hard and something bad happens, they’re in real trouble. They don’t get in trouble if they persecute the mother with detainment, investigations, and threats to take her children away.

    I see I’ve argued myself into a pessimistic position: we can’t readily change social judgments, nor can we change police practices. At least the local police department is an identifiable point of persuasion. Changing gut-level judgments about what makes a good mother is a much larger job.

    Good article, as always.

  17. Unconsciously we seem to consider moms as selfishly, immorally choosing to endanger their kids by going to work.

    I happen to be one of the neanderthals who consciously believes some variant of this. It’s not specifically a mom thing and it’s not an endangerment thing, but what’s the point of having children when they spend more time with the daycare attendant/public school teacher/nanny than with their parents? SLDs apply here, but we bitch about the culture being full statist, and then we ship our kids off to be mentored and taught by people who are by-and-large statists for 50 hours a week.

  18. Dads are judged less harshly because the bar for being a good one is so low. If you can remember your kids names you are up for Dad of the Year…

  19. Nailed it.

    1. Your kid’s name is “Nailed It”? Cool.

  20. Our society has come to be lacking in mutual respect among individuals and under the law because the law has become too frivolous, dissecting every behavior that individuals might choose to engage in and passing laws to address it. This has encouraged judgmentalism and the near inability for people to simply mind their own business. Social busybodies have demanded more and more laws, but lawmakers have complied. In an attempt to soften the impact of this, “discretion” has been added to those laws. That has moved us completely away from the rules of law and introduced the rules of man(that’s what discretion means). Parents no longer teach their children the wisdom of experience, only obedience to the law. We have created, but not formalized, a two-tiered society of nobility and peasantry. The most fundamental principle of freedom, self-ownership, has been entirely removed with nuisance laws that tell us what we may ingest into our own bodies, what consensual behaviors we may engage in with other adults and how we may spend our own money. It has produced a general lack of respect for authority and many are, in a fit of blockheadedness, demanding we do more of it as the solution. We are circling the drain and it’s all because of a lack of freedom, not the exercise of too much of it.

    1. I’m writing you in this November. I hope “ddcannady” is your complete legal name.

  21. This is a typical example of shitty social science. “Because it has become socially unacceptable” isn’t some sort of profound insight. It’s just a restatement of the obvious situation.

    1. Yes, but your way does not include a lucrative gubmint grant. Why are you such a capitalist hater.

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  25. Yup, it’s right wing control and criminalization of imperfect womanhood meets socialist control or criminalize every action that is not authorized by the state. Disgusting.

    1. If you read parenting boards, far more of this type of judgemental behavior comes from left-wing types. Full blown, hillary, feminist, leftist insanity.

      It may be different sides of the same coin, but the left owns this brand of it. And I actually think it is one-child and working mom types who push this because they are more likely to make their child center of the universe or are divorced from the daily work of childcare and can persist in an idealized theory of how parenting should be rather than how it really is.

  26. I mean, it’s not like these hyper protective parents are raising children who will demand safe spaces from scary words?
    Oops, my bad.

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  29. June Cleaver allowed Wally and the Beaver go all over town on their own. She would be arrested today.

    Anyway… I feel a bit of creative interpretation of the results going on, but even if so it was the feminists (well suffragettes at the time) that insisted on the tender years doctrine. This what changed the presumed custodial parent in terms of divorce from the father to the mother. Its presumptions are the ones that would be behind that a mother has more responsibility towards children (non-financially) than the father. It’s been pushed for a century or more that is the case. Previous to this the father was the presumed custodial parent because he had the financial responsibility.

    The other factor in play is making people permanent children rather than thinking independent adults for the benefit of the government-corporate system and those who own and run it. That is the children are being raised that someone is always watching them. Someone will always be controlling them/looking out for them. Someone will always be there to punish them. A good way to condition the children if you want to rule a docile population.

    Combine the two and we get what we see today.

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