Parents’ judginess of other parents is making their kids less able to deal with life

No parents in sight.
No parents in sight.
Image: Reuters/Thomas White
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Crime rates have been dropping steadily for 20 years in most American cities. But you wouldn’t know it to look at the way Americans raise their kids.

Parents have been arrested for letting their children walk to the park alone or leaving a toddler in a car for a few minutes unattended. In 2015, police picked up two kids, aged 6 and 10, who were walking home alone. When the children’s father explained that they were allowed to do so, the police officer called Child Protective Services, and the parents had to put in place a “safety plan” detailing the children’s 24-hour supervision. It’s not only the US: In Britain, a recent study showed one in five children had been reported to social services before they turned five, many unnecessarily.

Many of us in our 40s spent our early years benignly neglected, roaming neighborhoods; today, leaving a child under the age of 12 alone is deemed negligent, or worse, criminal. So why, if cities are becoming safer, are parents becoming more worried?

Several factors have doubtless contributed. They include increasing litigiousness (a child falls in a playground and suddenly all playground equipment in the country has to be refitted); the rise of 24/7, online media, which makes every local horror story a national or global one; and events seared on every parent’s memory, like the disappearance in 1979 of Etan Patz, a child in Manhattan who had practiced walking to the bus stop with his mother before doing it alone and being abducted.

But researchers recently found evidence that something else might be fueling this culture of hyper-vigilance: parents’ need to moralistically judge other parents for their parenting skills.

The moral instinct

Parents have done this since the dawn of time. Perhaps a child was not polite enough, or too unabashedly joyful in public. Perhaps he didn’t tuck his shirt in properly; her rambunctiousness was the result of a poor upbringing. Any parent is familiar with that surge of disapproval and annoyance at other parents who fail to keep their kids in check. It’s just that now, this judgment seems to have a new object: parents who put their kids at (perceived) risk.

To test that hypothesis, the researchers—Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka, all from the University of California, Irvine—engaged more than 1,300 people in a variety of experiments.

Each participant read a brief story in which a child spends a short period of time unsupervised. Each story had five variations, in which most of the details remained the same (for example, Jenny, aged six, is left alone for 25 minutes in a park a mile from her house) and only the reason why the child was left alone were changed. There was one unintentional reason—the parent was hit by a car—and four intentional ones: the parent went to work, to volunteer for a charity, to relax, or to meet a lover.

Then, the participant had to rate the level of risk the child faced, on a scale of 1 (no risk) to 10 (very high risk). The researchers’ hypothesis was that, although the child objectively faced the same risk in each of the five scenarios, participants would view children whose parents left them alone on purpose as being in greater danger.

The results bore that out. In each of the six experiments, the average was around 7 and the most common response was 10.

More than that: Even when people were asked to rate the morality of a mother who got hit by a car while returning a grocery cart—thus leaving the child alone for just a moment—participants rated the incident a 3 out of 10, where a 1 meant she did nothing wrong and a 10 meant she was fully responsible.

“People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” the authors wrote. “They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”

“They were willing to assign a moral judgement to something out of their control,” Thomas says. “I don’t have children myself, and I guess I was surprised that people are SO judgmental about other people’s parenting,” she told NPR.

Why it matters

Driving is, objectively, far riskier to a child than letting him or her walk home alone. The risk of a child being abducted by a stranger and killed or not coming home is about 0.00007%, or one in 1.4 million annually, according to Daniel Gardner, author of The Science of Fear. Car accidents are among the leading causes of death in children. Yet no-one is arguing that parents should be arrested for driving their kids everywhere.

So if parents deem safe things risky merely to justify their moralizing, isn’t the inevitable result is that we will prohibit kids from doing safe things?

Ample evidence exists that children have way less freedom than they used to. To take one striking example: In the 1970s Roger Hart, a psychologist, spent two years making maps of where kids in a rural New England town were allowed to go by themselves—the “geography of children,” he called it. He did it again 40 years later.

In the 1970s, “he found that 4- and 5-year-olds were allowed to travel throughout their neighborhoods alone, and 10-year-olds had free run of the town,” Thomas wrote in her study. Forty years later, the crime rate had not changed, but most kids were not allowed—or did not venture—beyond their own backyards.

Over-parenting robs children of agency, some argue, preventing them from developing critical problem-solving skills. Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston University, believes less freedom has meant less free time for kids to play, which is hurting them.

“Where do children learn to control their own lives? When adults aren’t around to do it for you,” he told me earlier this year. “If you don’t have the opportunity to experience life on your own, to deal with the stressors of life, to learn in this context of play where you are free to fail, the world is a scary place,” he added.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Though the urge to judge parents may be universal, the situation in other countries suggests that the urge to judge them for risk-taking is not.

Germans probably love their kids as much as Americans, but in Berlin, playgrounds are an American litigator’s dream come true. Structures Americans or Brits might see as dangerous, Germans see as critical to building selbstständigkeit, or self-sufficiency.

In Japan, on the first day of kindergarten, kids walk or take public transport to school wearing special yellow hats. The hats are so that everyone knows who they are and can help them get to school, said Barbara Sarneka, another of the authors in the study. “Here, people would say that the yellow hats were like targets painted on their backs.”

Japan also has a TV show, Hajimete no otsukai (“My first errand”), about kids aged 2-6, who are secretly recorded as they go out to buy groceries alone for the first time. Not surprisingly, the the thrill of the kids in their new-found independence is adorable, and heart-warming.

In Denmark it is common for children to start walking or taking the bus to school alone at  around age six, says Iben Sandahl, co-author of the book The Danish Way of Parenting. (Its subtitle: “What the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids.“) ”It would definitely NOT be strange to se children playing alone in the park or at a playground without any parents around,” she wrote in an email. “It is more rare that parents join.”

Clearly Cophenhagen is safer than say, New York City. But Denmark is also shaped by the fact that parents value teaching kids autonomy. When parents are arrested for leaving their nine-year-old in a park to go to work at McDonald’s, autonomy is not the value we appear to be extolling.

Nonetheless, the US’s trend towards ever-greater caution does seem to be spreading elsewhere. Last year the Policy Study Institute, a UK think-tank, published a report (pdf), “Children’s Independent Mobility: an international comparison and recommendations for action.” It was a continuation of work begun in the 1970s, which examined how kids’ levels of independent mobility—“the freedom that children have to get about and play in their local neighbourhood unaccompanied by adults”—were changing.

The reason for the report, the authors said, was “the evidence…stretching back over 40 years, that independent mobility is declining with significant consequences for the health and physical, social and mental development of children.” Though there were wide variations from one country to another—Finnish kids had the most independent mobility—they found kids everywhere to be facing greater restrictions on their freedom.

The report’s authors recommended a number of policy changes, from more stringent road safety laws so that kids can walk and bike more freely, to better urban planning to create safe public spaces for kids.

“It is striking,” they wrote, “that the concept of independent mobility is not either a focus of many interventions or a major concern of policy-makers.” Instead of judging parents for encouraging their kids’ mobility, society should be finding ways to improve it for them.