Remember that old playground saying about, “what happens when we assume”?Turns out, as adults, we risk a lot more than making an ass of ourselves when it comes to assuming things about kids and their parents. Many people assume kids are at greater risk of danger than they really are, when they disagree with their parents' choices on moral grounds, frequently causing them to put kids in real danger when they intervene in response to imaginary danger. That's why assuming a kid is at risk is actually hurtful, not helpful.
For instance, kidnapping by strangers is incredibly rare, yet many Americans believe children should never be allowed to walk around their neighborhoods without an adult, because they’re disproportionately afraid of the possibility of kids being snatched by child predators. As a result, people call the police when they see a child playing outside without a parent, even when the child in question is old enough to do so. Though the child may not have been at much risk before, contact with police officers is scary and traumatic for many, and is especially risky for children and families of color who often face violence when interacting with police. That contact can also lead to interventions that separate families, which could result in children being taken from relatively happy homes and placed into foster care.
If we truly want to be helpful, we should familiarize ourselves with the real risks to kids, and position ourselves to be able to help when needed, rather than just pass judgment. For instance, if we see a child who actually is in danger, like a toddler who managed to break loose and run towards the street, we should just step in and help. Catching that child and returning them to their worried parent is infinitely more helpful than watching them almost get creamed by a passing vehicle, and tut-tutting about how “nobody watches their kids anymore.” In most everyday situations where people assume kids are in danger when they’re really not, assuming a child is at risk and acting on that assumption actually does more harm than good, for the following reasons:
It Stops Kids From Taking Healthy Risks
While there are some dangers that need to be completely avoided (like toddlers running into busy streets), healthy risk-taking is a really important part of growing up. Kids need to learn to do things for themselves, even to fall down and fail occasionally, in order to learn from their mistakes and become resilient and confident enough to eventually manage their own lives. When bystanders continually send kids and parents the message that it’s not OK to take any risks, they can prevent them from learning and growing and acquiring the necessary skills that will assist them well into adulthood, when adults no longer look out for them the way adults "look out" for kids.
Calling Authorities Puts Families At Real Risk
However large they loom in our imaginations, most of the potential dangers people imagine when they assume a parent is putting their kids at risk are exceedingly rare. Calling the police or CPS on parents when you don’t have concrete evidence of wrongdoing, however, puts that family at more serious risk of completely avoidable trauma (and even death, in the case of police who may be too quick to shoot under confusing circumstances). It also wastes the resources of frequently under-staffed agencies who should be focused on genuine cases of child abuse and neglect, not instances of pearl-clutching over kids being allowed a bit of freedom and initiative.
It Shifts A Parent's Focus From Their Kids To Nosy Adults
It’s only natural to turn your head and look at someone who is staring at or talking to you, or to focus on a perceived threat (like an angry face or voice). So when a busybody approaches a parent to scold them for putting their child in imaginary danger, they actually place that child in real danger by causing that parent to pay attention to them, instead of their child.
It Teaches Kids That They’re Second-Class Citizens
Every time an older kid or teenager who has been allowed the freedom to roam their neighborhood is stopped and harassed by even well-meaning bystanders or local authorities, they learn that youth are less welcome in public than grown-ups are. Young people are just as much a part of the community as anyone else. Their mere presence without an adult shouldn’t be treated as a transgression or a nuisance, because some adults don't understand that it's not actually as risky as they think.
It Perpetuates Fear-Based Parenting
I’ve definitely been in the exhausting position of managing two kids by myself, one older child who wants to go out and play, one infant who needs to stay in, nurse, and nap. In that situation, it’s in the older kid’s best interest to go play, getting exercise and fresh air, and for the parent and baby to stay in and get some much-needed rest.
However, after reading about other parents being arrested for making similar choices, I felt compelled to keep our older child indoors for fear of the neighbors calling the cops if they saw her walking to the playground on her own. Fear-based parenting causes us to make decisions that assuage our or others’ fears, rather than considering credible evidence of risks and benefits. That hurts kids and families.
It Undermines Parents' Confidence
Parents already worry constantly about whether we’re making the right choices for our kids. That’s why we read all the books, scour the internet, and pepper our support groups and friend networks with questions every time we’re about to make a decision for our little ones. Having people stick their noses in our business and question us every time we go out in public, pokes holes in our confidence, which makes it harder for us to parent our kids effectively.
It Perpetuates Classist Ideas About Parenting
It’s simply impossible to personally devote every single ounce of your attention to your child at all times, unless you have considerable help and financial resources. Many of the parents who have been arrested or charged with child neglect for letting their kids stay home or play outside unaccompanied, are low-income mothers of color who can’t afford childcare and are struggling to find or keep their paying job (or jobs). When people assume it’s inherently risky to let kids play or take care of themselves for occasional stretches of time, they often put parents who are already struggling to provide and care for their families into even more of a bind, or force them into the criminal justice system.
It Undermines Parents' Authority
Seeing other adults question our parenting choices gives our kids the idea that they should constantly question us, too. While it is sometimes healthy for kids to challenge their parents, seeing other people accuse us of putting them at risk is often just scary for smaller children, who can’t put that criticism into perspective. That injures the trust between kids and parents, who need to be able to trust each other in order to quickly follow instructions when they really are at risk of danger.
With the exception of a tiny minority of actually pathological people, the overwhelming majority of parents want what's best for their children. So when others assume that we would put our children at risk, they're effectively saying they assume we are bad parents, and bad people, until proven otherwise. That kind of shaming can drive some parents to disconnect from their community, which makes parenting harder on them and makes life harder for their kids.
It Makes Parents Feel Isolated
If “it takes a village” is the ideal ethos for communities, the rush to assume the worst about parents promotes the exact opposite. By assuming that parents are putting their kids at risk and then judging them accordingly, bystanders ensure that parents will worry about how others are perceiving us every time we step out in public with our kids. That can cause us to feel like we’re on our own when it comes to keeping our kids safe, and that everyone we encounter is someone waiting to judge us rather than help us. Children are better off in communities where people believe that we’re all in this together, not where every trip outside is an opportunity to be picked apart for imaginary reasons.