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Thu Aug 25, 2016, 03:34 AM

Our Assessment of Parents Is More Informed by Moral Judgment Than Actual Risks


One of the biggest challenges for today’s parents is figuring out how much freedom to give their children. The range of permissibility, flanked by overbearing on one side and negligent on the other, is narrow and subject to change at any moment. One’s peers may consider hand-holding, and its many age-appropriate equivalents, compulsory in one scenario and excessive in another. The same goes for leaving children unattended, which can be perceived as everything from character-building to dangerous, depending on the particulars.

What makes this all the more complicated for parents is that outside assessments of parenting choices tend to be fueled more by moral judgment than empirical assessments of assumed safety risks. There’s no evidence that today’s children are less safe than children of past generations who were generally afforded more freedom by their parents—if anything there’s some evidence that they are safer. Nevertheless, today’s parents are being chastised, and arrested, for hands-off parenting choices that were once considered kosher.

A recently published study examines the relationship between perception of risk and moral outrage, and found that moral judgement heavily clouds our assessments of risk in the parenting choices of others. “The less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people think the child is in,” the study’s authors write.

In order to determine this, developmental psychologists Ashley Thomas and Barbara Sarnecka and philosopher Kyle Stanford, all from the University of California, Irvine, devised an experiment for which they made up six stories about parents leaving children of various ages unattended for various periods of time and asked their 1,500 participants to rate both safety risks and the morality of the parents involved. One story features a 10-month-old named Olivia who is left alone for 15 minutes to sleep in the car in a cool underground garage. Another features Susie, 8, who spends 45 minutes alone at a Starbucks one block away from her mother. In order to determine the effect of moral judgement on the perceived safety risk, the experimenters varied the reason why the child was left alone. Possible explanations include: unintentional, so the parent could work, so the parent could volunteer, so the parent could relax, and so the parent could have an affair.


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