The social norm of calling the authorities regarding the mothering of others

Mothering is not an activity just left to individuals or families; it is a communal activity that occasionally veers into differences of opinions and the actions of authorities:

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts…

This has actually been confirmed by researchers. Barbara W. Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues presented subjects with vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended, and participants estimated how much danger the child was in. Sometimes the subjects were told the child was left unintentionally (for example, the parent was hit by a car). In other instances, they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work, volunteer, relax or meet a lover. The researchers found that the participants’ assessment of the child’s risk of harm varied depending on how morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving…

It’s not about safety,” Dr. Sarnecka told me. “It’s about enforcing a social norm.”…

These women’s critics insist that it’s not mothers they hate; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.

Social norms and expectations about roles are powerful parts of social life. Everyone has social guidelines to follow but the expectations can differ dramatically across groups. As the piece goes on to note, what individuals and society expect from fathers in similar situations differs.

This leads me to a few other thoughts:

  1. The appeal to third-party authorities rather than talking to the mother or just keeping an eye on the kids for a few minutes without alerting anyone reminds me of Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb. She argues suburbanites help keep the peace by not interacting with each other. When they have problems, they may call the police or the city or some other party who can mediate in the situation. The same seems to be happening here.
  2. Part of the issue here is that these laws were enacted because there are situations where children can be helped. So, how exactly can the public be shaped to react when it is truly needed and ignore the situation when children are not really in danger? This is a big task and goes beyond the ability of laws and regulations to shape society. At the same time, I would not say that there is some zeitgeist that will just change. How people view mothering and the safety of children is dependent on numerous concrete actions and values.

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