The Current

Is it risky to leave your kid alone? Depends who you ask, study suggests

Barbara Sarnecka and her colleagues did an experiment where a mom would leave a child — safe but alone — for a period of time. What changed is the mother's excuse. The findings determine risk is based more on moral judgment than real safety factors.

Do you feel judged as a parent?

5 years ago
Duration 0:56
Do you feel judged as a parent? 0:56

Read story transcript

Any parent will likely tell you they've felt judged at one point or another. 

A recent study is highlighting how much our moral judgments of parents — mothers in particular — play a role in determining what we think is risky to kids. 

A group of University of California psychologists outlined various scenarios where children were left alone. For example, a 10-month-old left alone for 10 minutes in a car in a shady, not-too-hot place; a two-year-old watching a video, eating a snack at home for 20 minutes; or an eight-year-old at Starbucks for 45 minutes reading a book. 

'People think that it's just morally bad and wrong to choose to leave a child under any circumstances."- Barbara  Sarnecka

But the study's authors differed the reason the parent — usually the mother — was not there: either it was involuntary because of an accident, or the mom deliberately left the kids alone, either to go to work, or to go and relax, or to meet her illicit lover.

Involuntarily leaving a child changes risk assessment

Study participants were then asked to assess how much danger the child was in with the parent gone on a scale of one to 10 — 10 being the most risky. 

Study lead Barbara Sarnecka, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti the findings are telling. 

People thought that children were in more danger when the mother chose to leave them alone than when the mother left them alone unintentionally.

"So if the mother walks outside and is hit by a car and doesn't come back for 20 minutes they think the child is safer than if the mother walks outside and does something voluntarily and comes back 20 minutes later," says Sarnecka.

A new study suggests that the calculus society uses to assess risks to kid by leaving them alone for a period of time is based on moral judgments of parenting and not objective facts. (Russ/flickr cc)

"Of course logically the same child, in the same place, for the same amount of time is in exactly the same danger. It shouldn't matter what the mother is doing somewhere else."

"The fact that people very reliably thought that children were in more danger when parents chose to leave them than when parents left by accident is a good indicator that people think that it's just morally bad and wrong to choose to leave a child under any circumstances for any length of time."

I'm a mother myself 

Sarnecka said she was surprised by how high people rated the risk the children were in. The most common answer given was 10. 

"That to me just seemed crazy. I mean 10 out of 10 to me is throwing a child into the ocean with sharks," she says.

"Ten out of 10 should mean 100 per cent chance that something terrible should happen."

Demographically, mothers were also the most likely to rate the scenarios as the most dangerous. 

"I'm a mother myself and I was very surprised by that because I thought that mothers would have the most experience taking care of kids and so would be the most rational."

"When you really look at the data about how dangerous these situations are, they are not very dangerous. They are much less dangerous than driving your kid somewhere in a car."

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.