AS278: No Child Left Alone

For the next two episodes I bring you a fascinating discussion with two of the three researchers who conducted the study described here. This is the perfect topic for this show because it illustrates how badly our intuitions track the data sometimes. It’s also a critical issue that could affect any of us! I hope you enjoy hearing from the researchers who brought us this study as much as I did!

15 thoughts on “AS278: No Child Left Alone”

  1. The author of the study is missing an obvious parameter to the calculation of risk. She goes to great length in making the probability of risk for a given instance the same regardless of the reasons for causing the event. The missing parameter is frequency (i.e., instances per year). Risk is the product of probability of harm multiplied by the number of instance per year for which the child is placed in danger.

    Risk = (probability of harm per instance) * (Number of occurrences per year)

    Thus, all risks should be normalized / annualized before a comparison is made. Thus, the reason a child is left in danger (albeit small) matters because it speaks to frequency (time per year) that the child is placed in danger. Thus, the risk to the child who is left along on a daily basis is greater than a child who is left alone as a “one of” event.

    I do agree that mothers should not be punished, rather they should be educated and helped. Placing a mother in jail doesn’t do anyone any favors.

    1. In all the events in the study the number of occurrences = 1. It may be that the ones judging the non one-off type stories are making assumptions that aren’t necessarily true and hence rating them riskier that they actually are.

      1. Again, there likely is an unspoken assumption with the participants of the study that for cases of purposeful abandonment of a child that the occurrence would be more than a single event. This goes to the attitude of the parent. The study would have been more clear if the parameter of frequency were explicitly addressed.

        Given the example of the mother that has her child play in the park while she attends her job, one can assume that this is a daily occurrence, e.g., 200+ times per year. This would significantly increase the risk to that child over time.

        I need to emphasize that I don’t believe in punishment of the parent. I believe we should collectively provide better / more alternatives for daycare for all parent of meager means.

    2. Actually, risk is defined as the probability of something occurring times the severity of the occurance.

      What you need to consider is comparing the risk of a socially unaccepted risk like leaving a child unattended at a playground for a hour with socially accepted one hour risks.

      The issue here is that social acceptance of risk does not line up at all with empirically calculated risks and that hyper over cautious risk assessment usually takes over when the issue involves leaving children unattended.

  2. The first example seemed counter intuitive to me. I would have expected that the condemnation would be higher in the example where the mother was hit by a car. The availability heuristic. In that case, the story actually has it that there was a genuine danger.

  3. Personally I see nothing wrong with a child of 4 being left in a car for a short period of time given adequate ventilation, a reasonable temperature and locked doors.

    However I do find it rather unsettling to leave a child alone regularly for a full hour in the school park. While the number of instances relating to child crime and indangerment are low, this is in a world where children are generally rarely put in dangerous situations. Hence if a more casual attitude is adopted with respect to putting children in risk, the risk itself may increase.

    In other words, it would make sense that if children were rarely put in risk the cases of children coming to harm would be low.

    While I do not believe the first case of leaving the child in the car is in no way neglect, I would go so far to say as regularly leaving your child unattended on a regular basis does constitute a significant amount of increased risk and could be construed as child neglect in my opinion.

    1. In Australia the school has responsibility ‘in loco parentis ‘ until the child gets home, or his/her place for after school care. The child is obliged to go home. After this, the parent takes responsibility.

      Being a retired teacher I see supervision as very important. Children are supervised at all times while at school; either in the classroom or in the playground. I was dismayed by the tone of the podcast. ( I’m a regular listener).

      1. I agree, personally I believe supervising children is the responsible thing to do. After all children are legally defined as minors because the government realises before a certain age people generally lack the maturity and knowledge to make good decisions and keep themselves safe.

        I guess the issue is how this should be enforced. Should people be persecuted for child neglect and possibly lose custody for leaving children on their own? I honestly do not know the answer to that. But the law has to take worst case scenario into account. A lot of people under the age of 18 are probably mature enough to drink, gamble or whatever else. But the law has to set a minimum bar of reasonable expectations where everyone has reached a reasonable level of maturity. Likewise I think the law has to set a reasonable minimum when it comes to child supervision.

  4. This definitely is an great episode. I am an educator and I teach in a private international school and I know how over reaching it is to be supervising children all time for everything everywhere. I think this entire episode struck with me exactly how I’ve been feeling about parents’ (strong emotional/moral) need to look after their kids as well as supervising them at all times. (A big part of it is liability and fear from parents complaining/sueing). It is counter-productive, stunts independent responsible behaviour and reflects on a lack of understanding where perceived risk and actual risks exist.

    This episode reminds me of the story which I wonder if any of the researchers looked at and studied/researched:

  5. i have recently began to wonder if anyone has done any statistics on child deaths from being left in vehicles before and after the car seat laws that demand the child be buckled in the back seat. I am not defending neglectful parents or caregivers but with technology comes a multitude of distractions and if you add the old “out of sight, out of mind” issue then you have the ingredients for this situation to occur more.

  6. In the example of the mother being hit by a car vs going to the gym leaving the child alone for the same duration: In the first case, the person being asked has been told that the garage is frequented by reckless drivers thereby making the environment more dangerous than the second case. The “reasons” for the mothers absence probably shouldn’t have been something that describes a more dangerous environment if you want to isolate the variables.

  7. As I remember it, leaving a child in a locked car unattended was common (I remember staying in the car many times when I was under 10) until the early 80s when you started to hear cases of children left for hours in high summer heat. Over time the collective reasoning shifted from “leaving kids in cars is ok” to “but not on a hot summer day” to “never leave a child unattended in a car”.

    I can also say as a father that our own concerns with these issues are more driven by what others will say, and the associated risks of overzealous social workers/cops than the actual risk of leaving young kids alone for short periods. Thankfully are kids are finally reaching the age that crazy social judgment is not so strong.

  8. Usually I listen to this podcast in quiet agreement. No so this time, I’m afraid. Admittedly I speaking from the perspective of a country outside the US, but I’m sure conditions would be much the same.

    The reason laws relating to the ‘children in cars scenario’ were drafted in the first place was because some parents (obviously a minority), had thoughtlessly left their kids locked up in the family car while they went to the casino, pub or just shopping. Often, children would be left in the car…just for a minute, mind.. to swelter and on occasion die, because the parent had been detained. These things happen, and far more frequently than you’d imagine.

    I’m sorry but the thought of the seven year old left to while away a hour a park before being picked up made me really angry. No doubt other parents were obliged to take responsibility should the unattended child have a mishap. This is not some rare event; kids hurt themselves all the time. They graze knees, chip teeth, break arms! I can imagine the resentment of the attendant parent in such a circumstance.

    Dare I suggest a compromise? the parents supervising their children in the park during after school play, could whip up an informal roster. This would give each parent some time off duty in exchange for the responsibility for other children when they’re ‘on’. A win-win!

    My children are now 31 and 37 yrs old. the childhood years seemed to be an endless round of minor and occasionally major accidents. Usually these were the result of clumsiness and sometimes rough play. It’s impossible to be on hand all the time, but I think an effort should be made on those occasions when supervision is possible.

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