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How Judgy People Put Kids In Danger

Photograph by Twenty20

I spent the better part of my childhood exploring the woods with my brother and our best friends when I was a child. We played outside from morning to night, taking breaks only to refuel.

We walked freely between our houses, yelling through screen doors to tell our parents where they might find us. We encountered obstacles, big and small. We climbed over fallen trees, figured out the difference between poison ivy and poison oak, and how to identify each. We crossed streams and explored “secret” hideouts in those woods. We played, imagined and laughed. We argued, debated and asserted our ideas. Always, we went home together at the end of the day.

Never did my parents feel judged for letting us do this, which, according to a new study, is why they didn't worry about giving us so much freedom.

Kids wandering around unsupervised appears to be a thing of the past. Although I give my kids plenty of room to roam during our summers on the East Coast, they don’t have the same freedom where we live in Los Angeles. It’s not that I don’t trust them out here the way I do back there, it’s that I don’t necessarily trust other people—but not in the way that you think. I don't want to become fodder for parents who don't agree with my choices.

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I’ve seen the debates in “private” Facebook groups: Kids seen playing at a park alone (sometimes right across the street from their own homes) are often in the hot seat. Pictures are snapped and posted to the group. Debates erupt in an instant.

A kid playing alone when the parent is out of view is one thing, but open the discussion about kids sitting in cars, kids being left at home alone or kids walking to the park alone and you’ll hear a wide variety of passionate opinions.

It’s never okay to post pictures of minors without parental consent! It’s okay if it saves a life! I would never leave my kid alone at the park! Predators! My kids are free range; leave them alone! I can see him from my window!

The moral judgment that occurs in the world of parenting these days can be downright overwhelming. The ease of dropping a heated opinion in a comment field and running for cover means parents can judge other parents with relatively few repercussions.

A kid playing alone when the parent is out of view is one thing, but open the discussion about kids sitting in cars, kids being left at home alone or kids walking to the park alone and you’ll hear a wide variety of passionate opinions. Often, those opinions are grounded in perceived, but inaccurate, risk.

Fear of potential abduction or violent crimes might cause some parents to hover or judge parents who don’t hover so much, but the latest statistics show that crime rates are actually lower than 30 years ago.

While it might seem like teaching stranger danger is of the utmost importance, you might want to teach your kid how to cross a busy street first. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only 1 percent of cases of missing children in 2015 were investigated as “non-family abductions,” while other research shows that the No. 1 cause of children age 0 to 6 being struck by a car is darting into the street. The perceived risk of child abduction actually pales in comparison to the actual risk of injury to a child if they don't learn how to do things like cross the street independently.

Regardless of risk, the questions remains: Why are parents so quick to judge the actions of other parents?

Before you dial 911—or post a picture with a shame-filled caption on Facebook—because a child walking alone makes you uncomfortable, stop and think about the facts. I

New research (as reported by NPR) shows that moral judgment plays a big role in how parents estimate the risks to children. Using a series of vignettes, researchers evaluated the responses of 1,300 online participants to determine whether or not moral judgment impacts perceived risk of a child. Even when details such as length of time, age and location of the fictitious child who was left alone remained constant, parents considered children to be at higher risk if a child is left alone so a parent can meet a lover vs. if a child is left alone unintentionally (as in the case of an accident).

Instead of weighing the facts of the case (the child is alone but in a safe place) to evaluate the level of danger, the participants judged the choices parents made that resulted in the child being left alone.

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The fact is that all families are different, and all kids have differing levels of comfort and responsibility. While one 9-year-old might be perfectly comfortable at home alone while mom runs to the grocery store for 20 minutes, another might prefer to tag along. Most parents assess the capabilities of their own children before making these decisions. If parents can’t trust their own guts when it comes to child-rearing, how can kids possibly achieve separation and independence?

Before you dial 911—or post a picture with a shame-filled caption on Facebook—because a child walking alone makes you uncomfortable, stop and think about the facts. Is the child walking during daylight hours on a sidewalk? Did the child stop and look before crossing the street? Does the child appear calm and confident? Move on. It’s not your job to judge and monitor every parenting situation you encounter. In fact, those judgments just might do more harm than good.

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