This week, new research supported what moms sick of parent shaming have long suspected: people often judge how dangerous a given parenting practice is based on their sense of how moral it is, not based on a reasoned assessment of actual danger to the child. That's why there are lots of times people think a parent is putting their kid in danger, when they're really not: they see something they don't agree with or that they wouldn't do themselves, and they assume that it must be dangerous, rather than considering that they don't have enough information to make an accurate judgment.
It's admirable that so many people want to make sure kids are safe. Intuitively, we all seem to understand that everyone has an interest in keeping kids safe and raising them to be responsible, capable members of the community. That’s why, for better and for worse, people feel it's appropriate to question or condemn parents who they assume are putting their kids at risk.
Unfortunately, unlike our peers around the world and parents in times past, we live in a strangely individualistic time and place. So, while we still have a sense of concern for all kids, we simultaneously have this very new idea that individual parents (particularly mothers) are solely responsible for those kids’ well-being, as opposed to the community at large. As a result, instead of people just helping us with our kids, we're as likely to have people judge us for what we're doing with them, without bothering to learn enough about what we're doing to know that it's actually OK.
To put it bluntly, that can be dangerous. When people's sense of what's morally acceptable influences their sense of what's safe, they can make bad judgments about parents' actions. For instance, driving a child around is statistically the most dangerous thing parents do every day. Yet a parent is more likely to be reported to authorities for letting their kid walk to the park by themselves than for driving them there, because people mistakenly believe that stranger abduction is more common than it is and because they are comfortable with driving and don't see it as immoral. Kids can end up being taken from their parents, just because a bystander thinks they're in danger when they really aren't.
From birth to their teen years, there are lots of times when people think parents are putting their kids in danger when they really aren't. Parents really are doing their best, though, so when we see the following, we should err on the side of assuming that parents know what they're doing, before we shame them or call the authorities.
When They Don’t Breastfeed (Or Breastfeed Beyond One Or Two Years)
As a result of the well-intentioned but occasionally problematic public health campaign in support of breastfeeding, our society’s understanding of nursing has led to some really judgy behavior toward parents. Moms who can’t or choose not to breastfeed their babies are sometimes accused of putting their babies at all sorts of risk, while moms who choose to nurse until the child self-weans sometime in early childhood, rather than their mom stopping them at six months, or a year, or another arbitrary deadline, are sometimes treated like perverts. While breastfeeding has lots of benefits for babies and moms alike, formula-feeding is a perfectly safe, healthy option, too. And breasts primary biological function is to nurse children; they’re not genitalia, and they don’t magically become “sex breasts” exclusively when a child reaches a certain age.
When They Co-Sleep
Thanks to another well-meaning, but not appropriately nuanced, public health campaign about safe sleeping conditions for babies, many people have become convinced that parents sleeping with their babies and young children is mortally dangerous to them. However, co-sleeping and bedsharing can be practiced safely, something most parents who choose that route go to great pains to do. As long as the parents in question aren't intoxicated, the child in question is healthy, full-term, not swaddled and lightly dressed, and they're all on a safe sleep surface (like a firm mattress, as opposed to a waterbed or a sofa), kids are at no greater risk in bed with their parents than they would be alone in their cribs.
When They Choose Baby-Led Weaning/Solids
There are lots of different approaches to introducing solid foods to babies as they approach the middle of their first year of life. Many families, mine included, choose baby-led weaning, where you gradually introduce soft, whole foods that babies can handle themselves. Unfortunately, some folks believe that giving babies anything but puree is tantamount to just wrapping your hands around the child’s throat and choking them directly. More unfortunately, many of those people will make sure you know that if they see you in a restaurant daring to eat while your child eats, versus letting your food get cold while feeding them. Sigh.
Babies, especially those who have been allowed to self-feed from the start, are very capable of figuring out how much food they can and can’t fit in their mouths, and how to move it around so that they don’t choke. Their parents know that, or else they wouldn’t let them handle their own food.
When They’re Wearing Babies & Toddlers (Especially On Their Back)
People who are unfamiliar with babywearing (another parenting practice that, while treated more like a “trend” in our society, is just a standard part of parenting all over the world) often think that babies being worn in carriers (particularly woven ones) are being restricted or somehow harmed. Worse, they often try to “help” by putting their hands on the child or the carrier when they see parents positioning their kids; something that actually can make those children less safe by throwing off their parent’s ability to feel and maneuver their carrier properly.
Truthfully, a baby worn in a safe carrier by a caregiver who is familiar with safe babywearing is in no more danger than they would be in a stroller. Unless they ask for your help, or unless you are a babywearing expert seeing a parent use an unsafe (as in, recalled) carrier or a safe carrier being used improperly, leave babywearing parents alone.
When They Let Kids Have Unstructured Playtime
There are a lot of benefits to letting babies and toddlers entertain themselves in safe play spaces, and letting older kids have time to explore the woods, or hang out around their communities, or even sit at home without grown-ups interfering and managing how they play and spend their time. Kids really need unstructured playtime, and many kids in our society don't get enough of it.
There are a lot of reasons for why, including more testing and other demands in school encroaching on recess, and parents' fears about letting kids make their own decisions or roam freely outdoors. Moreover, in some communities, not taking every opportunity to cram kids’ schedules with prestigious hobbies and sports, or just letting them do things of their own choosing (or, to just do nothing), is considered neglect.
When They Don’t Hover Over Kids At The Playground
Parents generally know their child’s physical capabilities, so they generally know when to be more hands-on when they’re playing and when they should give their child space to move. Some folks, however, feel that no matter what their child’s competence, parents should never leave their side (or worse, check their phones).
When They Let Older Kids Stay Home Unsupervised
I remember being a so-called “latchkey kid” when I was in upper elementary and middle school. My sister and I would ride home on the bus, let ourselves into our house, make ourselves a snack, and do our homework until our parents came home from work a few hours later. It really wasn’t a big deal, because our parents taught us how things worked in our house, made sure we knew who to call if there was a problem, and we got to enjoy a few hours to ourselves without grown-ups breathing down our necks.
Now, there are people who think kids should always be supervised, and react the same way to an older child or young teen looking after themselves for a few hours as they would to a baby or toddler left at home without a parent. But older kids, who in generations past would be responsible for far more than just locking the door and fixing a snack, are perfectly capable of handling themselves for a little while.
When They Let Kids Cook
There has to be some kind of transition between nursing and being fed by your parents, and being a fully-grown adult who can cook their own meals and care for a family of their own. That transition has to happen at some point before kids turn 18, which means kids need experience with cooking (not just helping to shuck corn or set the table, but actually using knives, operating the burners on a stove, and so forth) long before they’re ready to leave home. Contrary to what the safety scissors till college crowd may say, it’s not putting them in danger to coach them on how to do that, and then to let them do it, first while supervised, and as they get older and more experienced, when they’re home alone.
When They Let Their Kids Walk Around Their Neighborhood Unaccompanied
In past generations, and in many present-day communities around the world, it wouldn’t be at all alarming to see children out and about in their communities, playing with each other or helping their families conduct business. Still, in many contemporary American communities, a child walking to and from a nearby playground without an adult has become an occasion to call the police. Parents have made headlines, and had their kids taken and held by authorities, because they let them walk to a nearby park. Other moms have been arrested and threatened with jail time for letting kids play outside while they looked for work. Statistically, a kid is at greater risk of being hurt or killed while being driven around than being harmed at all while walking around outside. (That is, unless a passing stranger traumatizes them by calling the police to harass or permanently separate their families.)
When They Let Kids Use Public Transportation
Knowing how to navigate a community by bus or rail is useful to anyone who wants to get around without using a car. That's why many parents ride public transportation with their kids from a young age, and then teach them how to navigate it by themselves as they get older. Unfortunately, when some parents do that, they run the risk of ending up in trouble. The most famous example of this is Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy, who was called “America’s Worst Mom” for letting her nine-year-old son ride the NYC subway without her, and then writing about it.