What Is The Risk Of Your Child Being Abducted?

The Delta variant and many areas reducing safety protocols despite that threat. I’m hearing from a lot of parents that they are staring down the barrel of at least another six months before they can put their child safely back in daycare, preschool, or kindergarten.

Let’s discuss the No Child Left Alone study that was done quite a while ago now. Tt was originally published in 2016. The implications it’s had for us over the last year and how it might effect us as we “return to normal” AND those of you who aren’t. 

What it aimed to measure was how big of an impact our morality has on our risk assessment.

How much does what we believe to be right or wrong affect how risky we think something is?

They wanted to measure this specifically in the context of leaving children alone. The abstract of the study details the story of the Meitiv family. . Long story short, the 6 and 10 year old children of the Meitiv family had been given permission to walk to their local park to play, and then were picked up by police on their way home because a “concerned bystander” called to report unsupervised children.

This is very similar to the story of Kim Brooks that she details in her book Small Animals. The abstract goes on to explain that just one generation ago, leaving children unaccompanied was acceptable and normal.

They demonstrate that by talking about the Roger Hart’s project where he went and he mapped where children were allowed to play in the a small town in the UK in the 80s.

Then 40 years later he went back and tried to do it again, but most children weren’t allowed out of their yards now, and most weren’t even allowed out without supervision.

What changed?

What caused those parents, who were the children roaming around unfettered 40 years before to now be the overprotective parents who wouldn’t let their kids out of their sight? 

Their conclusion was that it was the availability heuristic.

What is availability heuristic?

Availability Heuristic is a mechanism our brain uses to understand the safety of the world around us.

Basically, the more frequently and recently you’ve experienced something, the more likely your brain is to think it will happen again.

In this case, in the 70s you only ever heard about your local crime rate and the goings on around your local context frequently.

Occasionally you’d get news in the Newspaper or the Radio or TV about events outside your local context, so our brains made risk assessments based off of that local information it heard frequently.

Now, we hear more about the global context than the local context, and because we hear about it much more frequently because we have access to the internet and Facebook and podcasts, etc. Our brains make risk assessments based off that global information.

A child is abducted in Texas and a child is abducted in Dubai and a child is abducted in Australia and because we’ve heard of those in relatively short order our brain goes “well, the chances a child will be abducted are actually quite high! It’s not safe!”

When in reality your local area hasn’t experienced a child abduction in over 20 years.

We have this dynamic in a lot of areas: travel accidents, house fires, school shootings, and yet none of those things result in parents being criminalized.

Parents aren’t criminalized for taking their kids on a plane with them even though the chance of a plane crashing is much higher than them being abducted.

Parents aren’t crimialized for using fire places even though the chance of your house going up like a box of tinder is much higher than a child abduction.

Parents aren’t criminalized for sending their kids to school despite the glut of school shootings the US experiences every year.

Why are some objectively high-risk activities totally normalized and others aren’t?

This is because of moral coherence.

Basically, we modify factual beliefs to fit our moral intuition. If we think something is morally wrong, we will alter the facts to justify that moral judgement. If we think something is morally acceptable, we’ll do the same thing. 

How this study was conducted was they created 6 scenarios using 6 imaginary children of different ages.

They created vignettes or situations under which each child would be left alone: so one 10 year old child was being left alone asleep in a cool underground parking garage of a local gym. Another was 2 and sitting at home eating a snack and watching the movie Frozen.

They created these scenarios, and they read them to participants. They kept all the scenarios the same, the only thing they altered was the reason for the parent leaving their child in that scenario.

They had 5 reasons for leaving the child that they rotated through, voluntary, unintentional, work, relaxation, and affair. They read the scenarios and were asked to rate the amount of risk in a situation from 1- 10 based on the risk of the child being harmed. They then ran the same experiment but instead of mothers leaving their child, it was a father leaving the child.

There were a few other variations they ran as well. 

What they discovered is that even if every other aspect of the scenario is identical, people will judge the risk of harm to a child as higher if they morally object to the reason the child is being left alone.

In the scenarios that ended with Mom getting hit by a car or stuck in traffic on her way home, the unintentional category, the participants universally rated the risk of harm as lower.

In the scenarios that ended in Mom leaving the kids to meet a lover or to go to the spa. The relax and affair conditions, the participants universally assessed the risk as higher.

The more morally ambiguous ones- the volunteering and work reasons. They assessed those as somewhere in between. 

What does this tell us?

This tells us that we’re not very good at assessing risk objectively as humans.

When we assess risk we’re bringing in our availability heuristic, as well as our moral feelings about whether we should be allowing our children out of our sight at all.

This is relevant right now, because if you’re still working from home, if you’re still without care, if you’re trying to figure out whether your child should take the bus home from school. Whether you should drive them home from school even you want to make sure that you’re objectively assessing the actual risk to your child before you disallow it.

Over the pandemic so many of us have been killing ourselves trying to never let our kids out of our sight, doing everything for them, taking health precautions even that aren’t rooted in reality.

I’m guilty of this too, I kept both my children home from school last year despite very low COVID numbers locally.

However that wasn’t the only factor in me deciding to keep them out. I looked at those numbers and they were low.

I also looked at the mental health consequences of constantly changing learning environments, of shutdown, and the logistical disruption that would cause to our family.

I looked at the risk of having to shut my parents out of our bubble. I tried to make an objective decisions based on those risks. I’m not sure I succeeded, but knowing this information….I tried.

I’ve heard so many parents who have been frustrated because they didn’t feel they could morally let their children out to play in their yard even while they worked, or they didn’t feel they could morally allow their child to be awake while they worked. This is because we’ve been fed so much out-of-date and subjective information on child development and attachment. 

All this to say: I know many of us are in the middle of finalizing our decisions about September.

Those decisions look wildly different based on where you are and what the situation is local to you.

Please, for your sanity, try to filter out all of the international news and your personal moral feelings about your decisions and stick to the local facts while making them.

It will make the decisions much easier, it will make them much more manageable, and it will make sure that you’re making decisions you won’t regret later because you made them based off of smoke and mirrors instead of facts. 

Hope this gave you some food for thought and will make you pause next time you’re denying your child an opportunity to consider where your denial is coming from.

Is it from a moral judgement, is it based on availability heuristic, or is it based on facts and your child’s actual abilities?

If you’ve got questions please drop them in the comments and I’d be happy to answer them. If you’ve like to continue the conversation, come find me in the Parenting Posse facebook group and we can talk it through over there.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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