An opinion piece from the Winnipeg Free Press –
Search the web with the words “unattended” and “children” and ready yourself for the horror show.
Child dies in bathtub after being left alone by drug-addled dad. Cocaine-infused mom charged with leaving her five kids alone so she could score more dope. Infants and toddlers abandoned by neglectful parents in cars outside Walmart.
We don’t have to go far to confirm our worst fears when it comes to unattended children. As these stories remind us, kids who do not receive proper care and supervision face grave danger.
And yet, these stories are statistically the exception rather than the rule; children are safer now than ever before. There are fewer child abductions and disappearances, and fewer deaths from traffic collisions, bike accidents and childhood diseases.
The conflict between perceptions and the reality of the threat against children came into focus recently in Winnipeg when a Wolseley mother revealed she had received a visit from a Child and Family Services (CFS) worker, responding to a complaint that she had left her children unattended.
Katharina Nuss had allowed her seven-year-old and three-year-old children to walk from their home to a nearby bakery on their own as a “confidence building” exercise. The two children were never out of Nuss’s sight, and were well-known to the bakery owners. Even so, an anonymous member of the public called CFS.
In a visit with a CFS social worker, Nuss was reminded that provincial law requires any child under 12 to be properly supervised by an adult. Nuss was understandably outraged that anyone, particularly a social worker, would suggest that she had made a bad decision by allowing her children to walk half a block on their own.
The hard and fast rule about children under 12, Nuss has argued, is arbitrary and unfair to the point where it punishes otherwise good parents. “As parents, we should be able to exercise our judgment when it comes to their cues of readiness, rather than our fear of CFS,” Nuss said.
The story kicked off a city-wide debate about whether we have become too protective, too alarmist in assessing the overall state of child welfare. This story resonated with many people, including the Indigenous community, which has argued, and rightly so, that the CFS system has been much too quick to punish parents and apprehend children.
The idea that we have become a society of alarmists is certainly borne out in the aforementioned data about the actual threat level for children, but also in social science, which has dug deep into the way we view an unattended child.
In short, we are overly judgmental about other parents and entirely unjust in the way we apply that judgment.
There have been many studies that have substantiated the concern that Western societies are, on the whole, too alarmist and quick to judge parents and the way they care for their children.
One seminal 2016 study done by psychologists at the University of California showed that because of our often irrational “moral intuitions,” we are extremely bad at assessing the actual threat posed to children left unattended, and profoundly unfair in how we view the obligations of mothers and fathers. For example, study participants were much more likely to reach a “negative moral judgment” of a mother than of a father in the exact same scenario.
And despite the fact that all genuinely unattended children face the same level of threat, we are more likely to see a greater threat when parents leave their children unattended on purpose (left in a car while running an errand) than inadvertently (wandered off on their own).
In other words, the average member of the general public is not equipped, either professionally or intellectually, to provide an accurate assessment of the actual threat against an unattended child. That certainly supports much of what Nuss said in the wake of her brush with CFS.