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Dangers faced by children left alone tend to be exaggerated, researchers say

A father and daughter walk in the city center in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A father and daughter walk in the city center in Berlin, Germany.

Survey finds that fears about the dangers of leaving children unattended are rooted more in moral judgments of neglectful parents than in rational assessments of dangers faced by children left alone.

Fears about the psychological impacts on children who are left alone are based more on moral judgments about neglectful parents than on actual dangers faced by an unattended child, a new study suggests.

In the study, social scientists at the University of California, Irvine asked survey participants about a variety of theoretical scenarios in which a child was left alone for less than an hour.

Depending on whether the parent's absence was unintentional (delayed by a car crash) or intentional (engaging in an extramarital affair), respondents would rank the risk faced by the child.

"Despite identical descriptions of each set of circumstances in which children were alone, those left alone on purpose were estimated to be in greater danger than those whose parents left them alone unintentionally," the study’s researchers said in the journal Collabra.

UCI's Barbara Sarnecka said the consequences of this type of thinking lead to harsh legal ramifications for parents charged with neglect.

Sarnecka: “Exaggerating the risks of allowing children some unsupervised time has significant costs besides the loss of children’s independence, freedom and opportunity to learn how to solve problems on their own,” Sarnecka said. “As people have adopted the idea that children must never be alone, parents increasingly face the possibility of arrest, charges of abuse or neglect, and even incarceration for allowing their children to play in parks, walk to school or wait in a car for a few minutes without them.”

One listener of KPCC’s Airtalk — Maya, driving on the Santa Monica Freeway — commented that culture is an important variable in parenting:

Maya: “I was born and raised in Yugoslavia. [I] came here when I was 12. I remember how easy it was for my parents to get in trouble and be questioned for their parenting. There’s a definite cultural bias.”

Sarnecka said people’s harsh reactions toward the incident of the child who recently fell into a gorilla’s enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo was an example of the phenomena she was studying:

Sarnecka: “People are really freaked out about the idea of a child ever being unattended for a minute. And if some crazy, low probability freak accident like that happens, they immediately are very angry at the parent who didn’t have the child in handcuffs.”

Another AirTalk listener, Melissa from Santa Monica, said trusting children to be responsible for themselves has a positive impact:

Melissa: “When my sister and I were kids, we were left in our home alone while our parents worked. And we had access to alcohol and we didn’t do that [drink alcohol] because there was an innate trust… The neighborhood moms were pretty judgmental, but we [my sister and I] spent a lot of time studying….  And those other kids in the neighborhood didn’t have the skills to cope with day to day decisions.”

What do you think? What affects your perceptions of risk and fear? How does that play out in your parenting?

These interviews have been edited for clarity. You can listen to the full segment by clicking the blue Play button above.


Barbara Sarnecka, Co-author of the study “No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children;” Associate Professor of Cognitive Sciences, University of California, Irvine

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