PhotoGone are the days of allowing kids to walk to the store on their own or spend the day adventuring with friends. These days, parents don’t feel comfortable leaving children alone for even a short period of time.

You might think safety has something to do with the shift, but evidence suggests that American children are safer than ever. So why are parents keeping their kids on such a tight leash? 

Social scientists at the University of California, Irvine say it's because leaving kids alone on purpose often comes with a fair amount of judgment from others.

Socially unacceptable

Researchers say parents’ fears of leaving children alone have become amplified in recent decades, to the point that leaving kids alone has become socially unacceptable.  

“Without realizing it, we have consistently increased our estimates of the amount of danger facing children left alone in order to better justify or rationalize the moral disapproval we feel toward parents who violate this relatively new social norm,” said lead author Ashley Thomas, cognitive sciences graduate student.

This moral disapproval came to the surface when participants were asked, in a survey, to rate the risk of leaving children alone in five different scenarios. When children were left alone on purpose, they were perceived to be in greater danger than when their parents left them alone involuntarily.

Separating judgment from risk

This finding was surprising to researchers, who argue that leaving a child alone on purpose is much safer than leaving a child alone by accident because "parents can take steps to make the situation safer, like giving the child a phone or reviewing safety rules.” 

The fact that people think the opposite, says co-author Barbara Sarnecka, suggests that they “morally disapprove of parents who leave their children alone, and that disapproval inflates their estimate of the risk."

Sarnecka says these findings could be important to lawmakers and enforcers, as they show that moral judgments may often cloud a person’s assessment of risk to a child.

"At a minimum, these findings should caution those who make and enforce the law to distinguish evidence-based and rational assessments of risk to children from intuitive moral judgments about parents -- and to avoid investing the latter with the force of law."

The full study has been published online in the journal Collabra.

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