Why Are Parents Afraid To Let Vaccinated Grandparents Visit Unvaccinated Grandkids?

Evaluating risk is hard in an era of parenting panic.


The grandparents are both vaccinated. The parents, half-vaccinated. The grandkids, ages 6 and 3, not vaccinated. Time for the grandparents to finally fly in for a visit?

No, said the kids' mom. She didn't feel comfortable. After some awkward negotiating—the mom agreed to the visit if they quarantined and got COVID-19 tests—the grandparents got the hint. They agreed to stay away until whenever the kids get their jabs.

That's one story in a recent Wall Street Journal piece on people navigating the choppy waters of this not-quite-post-pandemic era. The piece also featured people wondering if they should shake hands, hug, etc. But I'd like to consider what it means to not allow vaccinated people around unvaccinated kids, because it reminds me of so many other questionable decisions we make when it comes to kids' safety.

"The people who are parenting now grew up in the Etan Patz / Adam Walsh era," says David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor and author of How Risky Is It Really?: Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.

Patz was stolen from a Manhattan bus stop in 1979, and Walsh was kidnapped outside a Florida Sears a few years later. Patz was one of the first missing kids whose picture was featured on a milk carton, and Walsh's abduction and murder generated significant national interest. (His father, John Walsh, became a victims' rights advocate and host of America's Most Wanted.) These cases fueled mass panic about stranger danger, even though the vast majority of child kidnappings are perpetrated by a family member rather than a creep in a white van.

Ropeik doesn't believe that this generation of parents is more irrational or fearful than others, just that they have been exposed to a greater level of negative news coverage about danger. "Risk perception goes up or down in direct relation to how prominent the risk is in the news," he says.

What's true of child abductions could very well be true of a certain virus that has enjoyed exhaustive media coverage for the past year.

But just like kidnappings, the actual risk to children is quite small.

"The grandparents aren't going to transmit it and the kids aren't going to get sick," says John Tierney, co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and We Can Rule It. "We have such a sophisticated panic-porn industry and they're just competing to scare you all day long."

Bridget Foley is a mom of two who thinks about panic a lot—her novel about an L.A. earthquake, Just Get Home, came out last week. Foley moved to Idaho to try to get away from the heightened fear levels she saw when living on the coasts. In Los Angeles, she says, she was in a new-mom group when two members were arranging a playdate. One asked the other, What do you wash your floors with? The response was Pinesol. This prompted the first mom to cancel the playdate. There was no way she was about to expose her precious baby to a non-organically-washed floor.

Foley watched ever more childhood activities get doom-ified.

"People don't do sleepovers anymore," she says—and that was before COVID-19. "They do things like they drop their kids off and the kids are there till 10 and then they pick them up, bring them home, and then bring them over in the morning for breakfast."

When she visited Idaho and saw kids playing in the parks unsupervised, Foley and her family decided to move there. Now she lets the kids go sledding (something not all the parents she knew back east would permit), but she has them wear helmets (something not all the Idaho parents require). Every bit of parenting is on that same allow/prohibit continuum.

Is there a way to move the needle? A way, perhaps, to convince parents to let their vaccinated parents visit the grandkids?

"What moves the needle on risk most times is showing respect for why people are or are not afraid," says Ropeik. A grandparent could say, for instance, "'I know you want to protect Susie. And way back when I was your age, I might have done the same thing. Let me just add that you also give some thought to having a grandmother in her life.' So you've framed the debate in a way that's respectful, rather than argumentative."