Survivor Bias

Caroline Wurtzel/Romper; Stocksy; Getty Images; Shutterstock

People Judge Other Parents During Tragedies, But Only Because They Are The Lucky Ones

Of course people are watching their children — but tragic accidents still happen, even to the most focused parent.

Originally Published: 

“5-Year-Old Boy Died In Hot Car As His Family Prepared For Sister's Birthday Party.” An NFL player’s 2-year-old daughter drowns. The number of accidental shooting deaths by children skyrocketed during the pandemic. There’s no shortage of tragic headlines involving babies and children. As parents, we tend to react in a very specific order:

  1. A heavy-as-lead gut drop imagining what this family is living through right now
  2. An immediate, unconscious distancing — horrible things like this don’t happen to families like ours, right?
  3. A flurry of thoughts, whether we intend to have them or not, designed to solidify that belief. “If that mom had been watching her baby closer…” “Neither of us could ever forget our kid in the backseat.”

Even when it comes to product recalls, we try to distance ourselves from a hard truth: those products could kill our babies, too. And we do it by placing the blame on those other parents, assuming they just weren’t watching their children, and that this latest unthinkable thing could’ve been prevented with a little more supervision.

Children’s safety experts say that supervision is a crucial part of keeping little ones safe. But in a nation where kids’ products regularly cause injuries and deaths — think formula, strollers, car seats, bassinets, play mats, cups, toys, and more — and laws surrounding gun control and even pool fencing are decades behind other developed countries, supervision is not the only thing to blame for these tragedies.

“Supervision is very important. It's one of the layers of safety for all kinds of things, whether it's swimming pools, bathtubs, or sleep, but it is always insufficient,” says Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger. “In any situation you have to have other things, like safe products, that don't cause injuries or that create an unsafe environment.”

If it’s not a lack of supervision causing 100% of preventable injuries and deaths in kids, what is it, then? Romper spoke with three experts about the important role of monitoring our kids, and all the ways supervision alone will never be enough to keep them safe.

Choosing safe products and practices

No parent intends to put their kid in a sketchy crib or a stroller with faulty parking brakes. The amount of due diligence required to choose safe products is nearly impossible to estimate, starting with researching guidelines for everything from safe sleep to the posture your kid should have in a high chair lest you ruin their hips for life (and even knowing you need to look it up, honestly). You’re supposed to read reviews, scour the user’s manual and commit it to memory, and actually fill out that little registration card that comes with a product so you can be alerted if it gets recalled. If you need to sleep, or work, or live any sort of life outside of child-rearing, this amount of admin for every purchase you make for your child is absurd.

Guido Mieth/Moment/Getty Images

It’s much simpler, and much less depressing, to approach choosing products as though you’ll always be supervising. Boiling down a product’s safety to how well a parent can monitor its use also helps us protect ourselves from thinking our own children can be hurt, or worse.

“Parents have to have a barrier to why this won't happen to their child,” Cowles says. “When you have a child, you're kind of raw all the time anyway. And then to hear these stories, you almost have to put up a filter as to why this won't happen to you. ‘This won't happen to me because I watched my child.’ ‘Parents aren't watching their children, they're using it wrong, they're using it too long.’ I think there’s some self-protection going on.”

With specific products, there’s also a certain mythos surrounding how well they work (Cowles cites the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play as an example). That chance at more sleep can make it harder to convince parents to steer clear of unsafe products. To Cowles, it’s crucial for parents to choose safe sleep spaces for their babies, and heed all product recalls and manufacturer recommendations. Doing so allows parents to also be humans who have to eat, sleep, pee, and tend to other things.

“Take some of the products, like loungers, that aren't made for sleep — that's what the company says. But it's a pillow. You lay a baby on it. If they fall asleep, I'm gonna leave that baby there. Even if all I do is stand up and walk to the kitchen to get some water and then I realize I never did the dishes and so I start doing the dishes… You step out of the room because you hear your toddler screaming in the other room and you don't take the baby with you. It’s not intentional, it's just life, right?”

Using products as intended, and manufacturing them for how they’ll actually be used

Keeping children safe in products starts with parents reading the owner’s manual and using it exactly as directed. With a baby carrier, for example, that means following the guidelines on when your baby should face inward versus outward. “Make sure caregivers and parents are really reading owner's manuals and making sure that they understand intended uses. In order to reduce the risk of some of these tragedies happening, we want to follow those directions,” says Jessica Winberry, prevention coordinator with THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

Should parents read the user manual’s on their child’s products? Yes, always, according to experts. But when it comes to the myth that supervision alone can prevent injuries and deaths in products, Cowles places some blame on manufacturers.

“We all leave our babies unsupervised when they're sleeping, right? That’s the whole point of a sleep product. When your baby's sleeping, you aren't supervising them. If you're awake, you're trying to get something else done. If you're hoping to get some sleep, you're sleeping. That issue about the level of supervision required is fostered by manufacturers who will always say ‘watch child when in product,’ without realizing what supervision really looks like at a home,” she says.

Even the most diligent caregiver isn’t capable of monitoring a child “with the level of attention that would be needed to prevent some of these injuries,” Cowles says. “It would mean constantly watching them, monitoring their breathing and not doing anything else. It's just not gonna happen. And in many cases, parents were right by these children because, you know, suffocation, positional asphyxiation, they’re silent. Watching will not prevent these kinds of deaths.”

Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images

Winberry seconds this. “I can recall countless times where, you know, families were right there or not far away and this stuff still happens.”

Parents can supervise their children perfectly, but when products are manufactured with the expectation that the child using them will have a caregiver’s undivided attention, always, they’re setting families up to fail.

Letting go of survival bias

Even after products are recalled, some parents engage in survival bias: focusing on the children that lived through a dangerous situation rather than those who didn’t. Cowles says survival bias comes up constantly in her organization’s efforts to educate the public. If a product’s integrity fails or the design is inherently unsafe, one child surviving while another one doesn’t isn’t a product of supervision. “It’s luck,” Cowles says.

“Just because you used it and didn't die, or your baby didn't die, doesn't make it any safer. A good example of this is furniture tip-overs. Every time a dresser starts to tip and someone catches it or the bed stops it, that is exactly the same as if the child had been killed. It was just luck that it didn't happen that time.”

“I don't know how else to say it other than, you got lucky,” Winberry says. “Maybe you did have a time where you used a product not according to the manual. You may have gotten lucky one time, but it doesn't mean it's gonna happen again. When something [bad] doesn't happen, we get a little bit complacent. It gives you a false sense of security, but it does happen to families and they've lost their child.”

Both experts encourage parents to register their products so they’ll be notified of recalls, and to always heed them, even if you love the item in question.

Thinking of supervision as one layer of protection, but not the only one

Adam Katchmarchi, PhD, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), says one of the biggest hurdles he faces when trying to educate the public is that no one wants to think about their child drowning, which is fair. But if you don’t spend time with the statistics, you can’t understand how these accidents happen. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the U.S., Katchmarchi says, and the uncomfortable truth is that 70% of those cases happen during “non-swim times,” when you don’t think you have to worry about water safety at all.

“Families can only make safety decisions based on what they know about the issue. So many parents are completely unaware of the fact that their child's risk actually goes up when they're not around the water, and not expected to be around the water,” he says.

Tim M Lanthier/Moment/Getty Images

For the 30% of drownings that do occur while swimming, Katchmarchi says parents practicing touch supervision (being within arm’s reach of your child in the water) is critical, as is using the proper flotation devices for your child’s size and abilities. It’s the other 70% where parents honestly just needed a little backup. The NDPA advocates for parents to use layers of protection — basically a variety of barriers between your child and the pool, pond, or whatever body of water you live near. This could include door alarms, pool fences, and covers. Other layers of safety include taking a CPR class and enrolling your child in swim lessons.

“Let's face it: when water's not present and we're supervising children within the home, there are other things adults have to do, from daily household tasks to work to frankly just using the restroom. And so the idea that you can watch your kid 24/7 is an impossibility,” Katchmarchi says.

Winberry says the same applies to all kinds of tragedies. A week before our interview, two young children gained access to the family’s unlocked car and were trapped inside, resulting in one of them passing away, she said. Winberry agrees with Katchmarchi that supervision is vital, but it’s not a magic bullet. “Putting these precautions in place can help when we have that momentary lapse in supervision, which I would never promote, but we all know that it can happen sometimes where you're using the restroom or you're putting in a load of laundry and, you know, kids are fast. The more safety mechanisms or barriers we can put in place, what that really does is just slows that child down so that a caregiver can find the child before tragedy strikes.”

This, of course, turns safety into an equity issue. Not all families can afford to fence their yard to keep their kids away from a nearby retention pond, take a CPR class, or drop thousands on both a pool fence and cover.

Improving safety laws nationwide

When we think about laws, or the lack of them, endangering our children, our minds go straight to gun control. And why shouldn’t they, when shootings feel like part of the American experience these days? But there are other ways the U.S. fails to protect its children from preventable injuries and death.

According to Katchmarchi, the U.S. has one of the highest drowning rates of all high-income countries globally. Similar nations (Australia, Canada, and Great Britain) all have government mandated water safety plans, he says. In Australia, owners of properties with pools are required to fence them, and the barrier must meet certain height requirements and be kept clear of things children could use to climb over it. Pool inspectors check that your fence and the surrounding area are compliant with all safety laws and provide you a safety certificate you’re required to display near the pool which must be renewed often. If at any point you fall out of compliance, you’ll be fined.

“We are not used to having a government official come into our backyard and tell us if we're in compliance or not. I kind of tuck that under the civil liberties angle of the United States,” Katchmarchi says. “That's what it would take though. In localized areas around the country where there have been fencing requirements put in place around backyard pools, they work, but only to the level that they're actually enforced.”

The first-ever nationwide U.S. water safety plan was just drafted, Katchmarchi says, but not thanks to the government. The NDPA and numerous other nonprofit organizations have spent years writing it, finally unveiling it in July 2023. Because it is not goverment-mandated, there will be no enforcement of its recommendations.

There are so many reasons that accidents happen to children of good parents. Rarely is it intentional neglect, or lack of supervision, that results in these tragedies. They happen where a confluence of missteps — in product manufacturing and in legislation — meet a parent’s basic human need to step out of the room for something to eat. If we are going to give ourselves and our kids the support we need, we have to stop distancing ourselves from the scary headlines when we read them and chalking up another child lost to merely a lack of supervision.


Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger

Jessica Winberry, prevention coordinator with THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital

Adam Katchmarchi, PhD, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance

This article was originally published on