The Risky Business of Parenting
We judge parents for cosseting kids—and for taking even small, calculated risks.
Posted Jan 11, 2019
Parenting is a venture fraught with external judgment. This has doubtless been true for eons—societies have an interest in ensuring the wellbeing of the next generation. However, the concurrent rise of intensive parenting and the “age of fear” has ratcheted up the pressure on parents to minimize all possible risks to their offspring (Lee et al 2010). Unsurprisingly, this burden falls disproportionately on mothers.
Of course, what parent doesn’t want to protect their child? Risk-reduction has long been a central facet of parenting—the standard definition of “parent” includes “a protector or guardian” (Dictionary.com). Still, all parents expose their children to risks—even driving children to a pediatrician’s appointment risks a collision. So, how do we, as a society, draw the line between parental irresponsibility and reasonable differences in how people analyze risks and benefits?
Judging Risk, Judging Morality
Take the case of leaving children in cars. Several high-profile cases have documented the legal plight of parents, especially mothers, charged for leaving children unattended in parked cars while dashing into a store. For example, Kim Brooks left her four-year-old playing on his iPad while hurrying into Target. It was a cool day and the car was child-locked with the windows cracked. When Brooks returned, her son was still happily engrossed in his iPad. However, someone had videotaped the incident and reported it to the police; Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Similarly, Heather DeStein left her well-bundled three-month-old asleep in the car on a cold day while she hurried into a convenience store. She was gone three minutes (according to security camera footage) and could see the car the entire time. When she returned, her baby was sound asleep, and the police were waiting for her. DeStein, like Brooks, was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Meanwhile, DeStein’s baby remained in the car, asleep and content, during the 90 minutes that DeStein dealt with the police.
As a parent of a toddler myself, I think that Brooks and DeStein made reasonable choices, even if I would have acted differently myself. In both instances, the chances of harm befalling their children were minimal. So why were they charged with a crime?
Lenore Skenazy, an activist who runs a website called Free-Range Kids, argues that we, as a society, are more interested in policing mothers than in protecting children. She has a point. Scholars find that observers may overestimate the dangers of leaving children unsupervised in order to justify their moral condemnation of the parents—and they hold mothers to higher moral standards than fathers (Thomas et al 2016). For example, participants in a psychological experiment evaluated an unattended child as being in greatest danger when the child was left unattended because his mother was meeting her lover, in less danger if the mother were working, and in the least danger when the mother was unconscious after a car collision (Thomas et al 2016). Interestingly, if fathers left the child, perceptions of danger were equivalent in the work and accident conditions. The authors conclude that “[p]eople don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous” (Thomas et al 2016).
Kim Brooks, the mother charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor for leaving her child in the car while hurrying into Target, is white, married, and highly educated. Her lawyer reassured her that, “You’re not the kind of mom they’ll throw the book at” (Brooks 2018). Indeed, Brooks ultimately got off with community service and parenting classes. Other women—particularly less-resourced women—may pay a higher cost for similar behavior. For example, Debra Harrell, a single African-American woman, let her nine-year-old daughter play alone at a park while working at a nearby McDonalds. Harrell was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and her daughter spent two weeks in foster care—certainly a more traumatic experience than playing alone in the park.
Insofar as we judge children to be at risk because we judge their parents to be acting immorally, perceptions of risk are imbued with class and racial bias. For example, vignette experiments in the U.K. find that the type of housing inhabited (public housing, private rented accommodation, and owner-occupied) significantly alters health visitors’ evaluations of “good enough mothering” (Taylor et al 2009). U.K. health visitors are registered nurses with additional training in public health, yet these professionals were highly biased by housing type—the most overt marker of class status included in the vignettes. Because mothers, more than fathers, are charged with the responsibility for protecting children (Taylor et al 2009; Lee et al 2010; Thomas et al 2016), perceptions of risks to children and parental culpability are also gendered, with women facing harsher external assessments than men.
Pick your Risk
We all take risks, and we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of specific risks differently. Two individuals armed with the same information can come to different decisions, and neither is necessarily “wrong” (Oster 2014). I have never left my baby asleep in his car seat, but having once waited over an hour in a parking lot for him to wake up, I can understand why someone else might have acted differently. And, like all parents, I am more comfortable with some risks than with others—for example, I co-slept with my baby, a decision many might evaluate as reckless (but see McKenna 2018). By punishing mothers like Brooks and DeStein for taking calculated—and minimal—risks, we are imposing a single, inflexible model of parenting (mothering), ignoring reasonable differences in risk-assessment and in parent-child personality (e.g., children’s preparedness for independence). Because these standards are based on assessments of morality, not of actual risk to children, they leave little room for common sense.
As a society, we have become increasingly preoccupied with risk management (Lee et al 2010). At the same time, the criteria for being a “good parent,” or even a “good enough parent” have been growing (Hays 1996, Douglas and Michaels 2004). Driven by concerns that risk-averse “helicopter” parents are over-coddling their children (e.g., Guldberg 2009), guidebooks to raising “resilient” children have proliferated—yet these advocate for extensive parental involvement, investment, and risk-management (Hoffman 2010). Thus, even advice intended to promote child independence escalates expectations for parents. As a result, we may be asking too much of parents, particularly of mothers, and imposing a single, overly rigid standard of parental behavior.
My thanks to Abby Jorgensen, who inspired this post and helped me compile the sources!
Douglas, Susan J., and Meredith W. Michaels. 2004. The mommy myth: The idealization of motherhood and how it has undermined women. New York: Free Press.
Guldberg , Helene, 2009. Reclaiming childhood: Freedom and play in an age of fear. New York: Routledge.
Hays, Sharon, 1996. The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Hoffman, Diane M. 2010. “Risky investments: Parenting and the production of the ‘resilient child’” Health, Risk, & Society 12(4):385-394.
Lee, Ellie, Jan Macvarish, and Jennie Bristow. 2010. “Risk, health and parenting culture.” Health, Risk, & Society 12(4):293–300.
McKenna, James. 2018. “Safe Co-Sleeping Guidelines.” https://cosleeping.nd.edu/safe-co-sleeping-guidelines.
Oster, Emily. 2014. “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong--and What You Really Need to Know.” Penguin Books.
Taylor, Julie, William Lauder, Maxine Moy and Jo Corlett. 2009. “Practitioner assessments of ‘good enough’ parenting: factorial survey.” Journal of Clinical Nursing 18:1180–1189.
Thomas, Ashley J., P. Kyle Stanford and Barbara W. Sarnecka. 2016. “No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children.” Collabra 2(1):1–14.
Dictionary.com. 2018. Definition of “Parent.” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/parent
Broadbent, Elizabeth. “New Mom Faces Charges For Leaving Baby In Car For Three Minutes.” ScaryMommy.com https://www.scarymommy.com/arrest-for-leaving-baby-car/