How the media pushes reasonable people toward hyper-parenting

On a cold morning, a mother went out to her driveway to warm up her car. She turned the key, switched on the heat, buckled her 4-year-old daughter into her car seat in the back, and ran back inside to retrieve her other child.

When she returned moments later her driveway was empty.

Her car, and her daughter, were gone.

A frantic search ensued, local police were notified, and an Amber Alert was issued. Three and a half agonizing hours later, the car turned up in a nearby lot, along with the 4-year-old girl still nestled safely in the back.

THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF MEDIA

This story, which unfolded in Toronto on March 10th, has broader implications.

The first is that media, both social and traditional, are effective in crisis situations. The news of the missing child spread fast. People were on the lookout for the car almost immediately. There’s little doubt that the coverage helped to ensure this story had a happy ending. Things could have ended altogether differently and the media, at least in part, are to thank.

The second is less positive. While the fact that everyone heard about the story was helpful at the time, frequently hearing about these stories leads parents to exaggerate the perception of danger.

Because we can now all easily recall an instance of a car being stolen with a child in the backseat, we are prone to vastly overestimate the likelihood of such an event happening again. Psychologists call this an Availability Bias—when examples that come easily to mind are more likely to be drawn upon. In our minds, it has become far more dangerous to leave a child in a running car, when in reality, the risk has not increased at all and such events remain exceedingly rare.

THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

This exaggeration, however, has far-reaching consequences. It’s what led a police officer in a CTV video released after the incident to declare, “Do not leave your child alone in a car. Ever.” His remarks, though well-intentioned, are problematic for three reasons.

1. It’s unrealistic to expect parents to be with their children at all times and in all places. As any parent with more than one child knows, sometimes kids must be left unattended for brief periods—even in cars, even when they’re running.

2. It’s wrong to blame the mother. The person at fault in this instance is the car thief, not the mother. The officer should’ve said, “Do not steal a car. Ever,” instead of blaming the victim.

3. It contributes to hyper-parenting. Parents who heard about this story, or watched the video, will overestimate the danger of leaving their child alone. But what’s worse is that they’ll be inclined to believe that shielding their children from all risk is their duty as a parent.

Decades of research, however, definitively show that this couldn’t be further from the truth. To develop into capable and independent adults, children need healthy exposure to risk. They need freedom to roam and explore, and to be left alone sometimes to learn how to assess situations and make good decisions and judgement calls.

To be clear, kids should not be left alone in the backseat of cars unnecessarily. This type of risk should be minimized whenever possible. The point is that minimizing these types of unavoidable risks can easily lead parents to be overcautious in all aspects of their children’s lives. It can lead them to hover, to never leave their children unattended even in relatively safe situations, and to see danger lurking around every corner. 

DRAWING THE RIGHT CONCLUSIONS

This story shouldn’t serve as a warning to parents. On the contrary, it should be forgotten as quickly as it appeared.

Because of how our minds work, increased media coverage of stories like this one naturally leads parents to exaggerate the risks their children are exposed to. This is an unfortunate yet unavoidable consequence of the media being so helpful in these situations.

The benefit of alerting everyone likely outweighs the harm. Yet, the larger implications should not be ignored and could be curbed with better messaging.

Rather than showing a video of a police officer blaming a mother, it would’ve been better to reaffirm to parents that, despite appearing frequently in the media, scenarios like this one are rare. The actions of a single car thief should not affect how the next generation of children is raised.

The biggest threat to the well-being of children isn’t being left unattended in cars, it’s never being left unattended again.

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