Thomas, A. J., Stanford, P. K., & Sarnecka, B. W. (2016).
Collabra, 2(1), 10.
In recent decades, Americans have adopted a parenting norm in which every child is expected to be under constant direct adult supervision. Parents who violate this norm by allowing their children to be alone, even for short periods of time, often face harsh criticism and even legal action. This is true despite the fact that children are much more likely to be hurt, for example, in car accidents. Why then do bystanders call 911 when they see children playing in parks, but not when they see children riding in cars? Here, we present results from six studies indicating that moral judgments play a role: The less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people think the child is in. This suggests that people’s estimates of danger to unsupervised children are affected by an intuition that parents who leave their children alone have done something morally wrong.
Here is part of the discussion:
The most important conclusion we draw from this set of experiments is the following: People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.
This brings us back to our opening question: How can we explain the recent hysteria about unsupervised children, often wildly out of proportion to the actual risks posed by the situation? Our findings suggest that once a moralized norm of ‘No child left alone’ was generated, people began to feel morally outraged by parents who violated that norm. The need (or opportunity) to better support or justify this outrage then elevated people’s estimates of the actual dangers faced by children. These elevated risk estimates, in turn, may have led to even stronger moral condemnation of parents and so on, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
The article is here.