The Free Range Mom, Bias, and the Perils Of Blind Loyalty

About  the blind leading the blind---not only is it dangerous, it looks ridiculous to those who can see.

About the blind leading the blind—not only is it dangerous, it looks ridiculous to those who can see.

One of my favorite bloggers just fell into the blind loyalty trap. I’m sympathetic, but this is something that those who accept the responsibility of  teaching us important lessons and clarifying difficult issues must avoid at all costs. Bias makes us stupid, and blind loyalty breeds bias like carrion breeds maggots. It pains me to see Lenore Skenazy, author of the Free Range Kids blog, undermine her credibility like this.

She titled her post Horrible Editorial Chides Mom for Not Predicting Unpredictable Crime. In it, she takes the side of a mother who left her four-year-old son in an unlocked, running van while she picked up her daughter at a northeast school. Someone was drove her van off with her son in it, and subsequently crashed. The boy was unhurt. Under the circumstances, there is nothing horrible about the editorial, which uses the incident—even Skenazy agrees that the mother’s conduct was “dumb”—to caution parents about leaving children in cars. This is the editorial that aroused Skenazy to defend the indefensible:

“A Calgary mom has no doubt learned her lesson. The woman recently left her four-year-old son in her unlocked, running van while she picked up her daughter at a northeast school. The mother said she was gone about six minutes, and when she came out, someone was stealing her van with her son in it.

Fortunately, the incident ended well, with the child unhurt after the thief crashed the van, and the suspect was taken into custody.…charges of child endangerment need to be pressed to set an example, because no matter how often these types of things occur, other parents continue to leave their kids in similar situations. It takes just a few minutes to get your child out of a vehicle and bring him or her along with you on whatever errand needs running. Sure, it’s more convenient just to leave a child in the car and do the errand, unencumbered. However, child safety should trump inconvenience every time. Better a few extra minutes lost bundling a little one in and out of a vehicle than a lifetime of regret and what-ifs.”

The rationalizations in Skenazy’s defense begin with the title of her post, which is dishonest and in her own words, “dumb.” She is using moral luck as a defense, arguing that the sequence of events as they unfolded were merely unfortunate, and the mother just as easily could have returned to her van and car with nothing amiss. The odds favor nothing bad happening in six minutes; on the other hand, the odds of nothing bad happening are much better if a child isn’t in an unlocked vehicle with the engine running at all.

The editorial never suggests that the harried mother had to be Carnac, and predict the future. It’s message is that parents have an obligation not to place their children at unnecessary risk. Imagine a mother who places her infant down in the middle of an empty parking lot while she takes 20 seconds to chase her hat after it’s blown off her head. In that 20 seconds, an escaped security dog runs over, grabs the child and runs away with it, inflicting serious injury. Is Skenazy seriously suggesting that a response from the mother of “Well, how could anyone have predicted that?” would be anything but absurd? She carelessly placed her child at unnecessary risk, and harm occurred as a direct result. There were dozens of plausible ways this situation could have resulted in harm to the child, and that was all a responsible mother needed to foresee, not which of the terrible potential scenarios might come to pass.

Skenazy then takes issue with the editorial’s call to press child endangerment charges against the mother, since the editorial suggests that she has “learned her lesson.” Skenazy doesn’t understand, apparently, that there are more objectives to charging citizens for misconduct than simply punishing them, and teaching them a lesson as a result.  The state discourages conduct society properly deems harmful by making it clear to all that such conduct has dire consequences—that it will be prosecuted and punished. Skenazy, as she has in cases where children left in sweltering cars have died, is embracing the “they have suffered enough” approach. Suffering is not the objective. Sending a clear message to those who might be tempted to act in a similarly irresponsible manner is.

Skenazy hits the bottom of the rationalization barrel and breaks through to the ground with this:

If child safety trumps everything, how does the editorial writer square with the fact that more children die being hit by cars in parking lots and driveways than while waiting IN the car? This insistence that convenience is always wrong seems much more concerned with making parents “prove” they are bending over backwards for their kids, than with actually keeping kids safe.

This is so desperate and illogical that it is hard to respond to seriously. To begin with, a lot more children are exposed in driveways and parking lots than are left in cars alone with the doors unlocked and the engine on, so this statistic means nothing in the context of the incident at issue, unless the blogger is really suggesting that rather than taking her child by the hand, looking around for cars, and walking into a building with him, a mother should just leave him in a running car and hope for the best. Skanazy’s not suggesting this, though. She’s just flailing and rationalizing, because she identifies with the mother, and is thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I!” That’s bias and partisanship, not rational thinking. The mother endangered her child to avoid a relatively small inconvenience, and the way to look at it is not that she was justified but unlucky. She was irresponsible and lucky something worse didn’t happen.

Finally, Skenazy jumps the tracks of rationality entirely by taking umbrage at this innocuous and absolutely accurate statement: “Better a few extra minutes lost bundling a little one in and out of a vehicle than a lifetime of regret and what-ifs.” She writes..

THIS! This sentiment that is the poison we are fed every day disguised as a “helpful tip.” START IMAGINING A LIFETIME OF REGRET. Every parent is exhorted to hallucinate the most horrific, tragic, unlikely outcome of the most average, everyday, safe activity before deciding how to act. Of course, once you have imagined the “lifetime of regret,” NOTHING seems safe enough other than grafting your child to your side. That is why parents today feel so drained and worried. Either they are doing it “right” — hyperventilating about almost infinitesimal dangers. Or they are doing it “wrong,” by gauging the actual odds and even factoring in their own convenience. Tsk tsk. 

Uh, Lenore? Are you really arguing that leaving a helpless child unattended in an unlocked, running car is an “average, everyday, safe activity“? You know it isn’t; you said it wasn’t a few sentences earlier, unless by “dumb” you meant “not a bad thing to try as long as you don’t make a habit of it.” You are attacking a pointed editorial based on a specific, indefensible incident by implying that it was meant to apply to safe activity.  That’s intellectually dishonest. The message of the “horrible” editorial is straightforward and irrefutable: a poor decision that involves gambling with the safety of your child just to spare a little time and trouble can result in tragedy and a lifetime of regret—don’t do it: It isn’t  worth the risk. It is irresponsible on your part to try to undermine that message. What’s your message—“Go ahead, leave your kid in a running car with the doors unlocked—its a good bet!”?

I understand Skenazy’s perspective. She’s an advocate for parents, and her specific focus is to discourage fearful parenting and overly-restrictive child-rearing. In this situation, however, she needs to be able to be objective. The mother, a member of her usual constituency, is wrong. The mother’s critic is right. One an advocate makes it clear to all that loyalty and partisanship is more important  to her than honesty, objectivity and competent analysis, her usefulness as an advocate is seriously diminished. Skenazy can’t be an effective voice for rational parents if she feels she has to defend irrational parents too—and that is what she is doing here. This is where loyalty destroys integrity. When that happens, an advocate loses all credibility.

Why this is so frequently misunderstood by advocates in all sectors, I don’t know. Today I watched the ridiculous chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, insist on a Sunday morning talk show that President Obama had done just a wonderful job with the economy, and that the Democrats, all polls and common sense to the contrary, would not lose control of the Senate. It is true that she’s got a job to do, and she can’t exactly say, “Yup. no doubt about it, our party has fallen flat on its face and our President is hopeless, so we’re going to get shellacked, and we asked for it.” However, it is possible to be a loyal advocate without permanently making yourself useless by spouting nonsense and showing yourself to be untrustworthy. She could have said, for example, that as things look now, Democrats aregoing to suffer significant defeats, but that she was confident that the Party would rally, learn from its mistakes, and under President Obama’s leadership prove in the next two years  that it, and not Republicans, were best suited to guide the nation’s domestic and foreign policy.  We could still trust a spokesperson who said that….at least we could if it wasn’t Rep. Schultz.

Don’t be like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lenore. Please. You’re too smart for that, and your message is too important. If you are so loyal that you can’t recognize when your allies are in the wrong, you can’t do them any good when they are right.


Graphic: The Football Educator

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


10 thoughts on “The Free Range Mom, Bias, and the Perils Of Blind Loyalty

  1. Agreed that she went overboard, but also disagree with the editorial. It is advocating for pressing charges, and while I understand there is a good reason in the “message for society” they represent, I read that as “take the kid away” given the proportionality our government workers are known to.

    I know I sound like a broken record, but when children are involved the government goes nuts. In pithy soundbites: What Clark at Popehat writes about cops is only true about CPS workers.

    • I might not charge her, if it was up to me. FRM’s argument against the charge, however, is brain dead. If the mother really is thinking like the blogger—hey, I was just unlucky, no biggie, after all, more kids are killed on the sidewalk!—then the child is indeed in peril. How can anyone else learn a lesson from this incident if authorities just shrug it off?

      • In this specific instance I just don’t think the societal lesson is worth the price for the mother. And anyone who does not learn at least that leaving a child in a running car is increasing the odds of something like this happening from the situation itself is dumber than a bag of rocks.

        • But that’s what laws are for, Alex—for the dim people who say, “Gee, the best thing would be to leave my kid in a running car alone for a few minutes, but heard that they charged a lady for doing that, and nothing bad even happened to her child! Oh, well…” People with ethics and common sense don’t need most laws.

          • And still, they (the ethical people) are caught in the web too. Overreaching laws are terrible, but even laws written with a balanced intention can be stretched by unethical prosecutors/police officers/bureaucrats in search of a promotion – not to say personal vendettas where applicable. A good editorial would ask for an investigation of the case and fair treatment by the system. Unfortunately in today’s society asking for anything less than the full force of the law to be applied against offenders is considered weak and in favor of criminals. I hate that the existence of one extreme engenders the other; it feels like instead of coming to a reasonable medium people are pushed to the fringes to counteract the weight of the other side.

              • Yup, guilty as charged. I’m also biased against crocodiles as swimming partners – and that’s even less fair, as not a single one has bitten me… As opposed to every single gov worker I’ve ever had to interact with (except the DMV lady, she was very nice and competent).

  2. In a situation like this, if you are just “unlucky” your child DIES. That isn’t “unlucky”, that’s criminal. Charges should be levied.

  3. Laws aren’t there to even out the bad consequences. They aren’t to teach people a lesson. Lots of laws are there to prevent even remote, ‘bad things’ from happening or to exercise power. Seatbelt laws and Firearms regulations are a good area. Most people cited for seatbelt violations weren’t in an accident. No one was hurt. Nothing bad happened. They were still ticketed. It is legal to own a rifle with bayonet lugs. It is legal to own a bayonet. If you attach the bayonet to the rifle, it is a felony. Last time I checked, no one in the US has ever been bayonetted during peacetime. The law still remains and it will be used even if the risk is very close to zero.

    • You must not have ever seen the headlines from the school shootings in the mid-1830s:

      “One Shot, Six Bayonetted by Musket Wielding Student in Concord Public School”

      Mass killings were boring affairs back then.

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