Why Do We Judge Parents For Putting Kids At Perceived -But Unreal- Risk?

A 9-year-old girl spent all day playing at a park near her home. She had a cell phone and a house key with her, and went home when she got tired. Was that dangerous? It sounds like typical behavior for a 9-year-old. But what if you knew she was there while her mother worked all day? Does that change anything about how dangerous her day at the park appears? An experiment shows that people don’t so much judge such a situation as dangerous because it’s objectivly dangerous, but because of how neglectful the parent appears. In fact, the morality of the reason a parent leaves a child unsupervised directly affects how dangerous the situation is perceived to be. Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford, and Barbara Sarnecka of the University of California at Irvine conducted an experiment that showed such bias.

To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent's location.

To experimentally manipulate participants' moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover.

Not surprisingly, the parent's reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants' judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. Ratings for the other cases fell in between.

The researchers were motivated by an increasing number of parents who get into legal trouble for allowing their children to be unsupervised in situations that were once considered normal. The case of the 9-year-old girl was real, and her mother was arrested for child neglect. They talked about the research at NPR, and said the most surprising thing was how judgmental the participants were, and the most judgmental of all were mothers, who also overestimated the risk of danger the most. -via Digg

(Image credit: Flickr user Dave)

See more about baby and kids at NeatoBambino

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

Um both mothers and fathers can't be "the most judgmental." They were stating a fact. We know facts tend to sting on occasion but that is what it is. Where does it say mothers are the only ones neglectful? The story repeatedly uses "parents neglectful." I sense the lady doth protest too much.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
My mother was a hypochondriac, and my father traveled a lot, so I was on my own most of the time. I rode all over on my bike when I was 9, and when we moved to Milwaukee a year later, I took city buses. I rowed all over a lake by myself when I was 8. I survived it all just fine. Of course, I didn't let my kids do those things, because I wanted them to know I cared about them. But I would probably be considered a lousy mother these days, because they did have more freedom than seems to be permissible nowadays.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I checked the research paper, and they did present scenarios about fathers, in fact did an entire experiment about fathers. But you probably know that mothers get judged more than anyone.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Why Do We Judge Parents For Putting Kids At Perceived -But Unreal- Risk?"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More