Child Safety, Part I

Parents: Do you invest more in your child’s safety than your own? Less? Roughly the same amount?

I’ve been pondering these questions lately. I have numerous friends who have purchased safer cars once they became parents, or suddenly took an interest in the finest of fine print on warning labels. These anecdotes suggest that we invest more time and money in child safety compared to adult safety.  Interestingly, more rigorous empirical examinations support these anecdotes. Those data suggest that parents invest about twice as much in protecting children as they do in protecting themselves, even when both are facing the same probability of experiencing the same harm. Parents are not alone in this preference. Both parents and nonparents appear to want governments to invest about twice as many resources in protecting children as adults. Here’s some of the data:

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Readers: Does this ring true?

Stay tuned for what these preferences might mean for tort law…

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2 Responses

  1. I’m always interested to see parents without helmets riding bikes with their children who have on helmets. I don’t know what the rationalization is — I will be better at avoiding accidents than my child, so I don’t need a helmet? That doesn’t seem implausible to me, but not necessarily sound. I’ll feel bad if my child is injured when he’s not wearing a helmet, but I’m willing to take the risk myself?

    • Sean Williams says:

      I have noticed similar patterns. Not surprisingly, children are at greater risk of getting into an accident while biking than adults. So parents have some good reasons to treat their children differently in this context. But as you suggest, the cost of helmets appears to be quite low (in dollars and in ruffled coiffures) when compared to their benefits for both populations. So we might find it puzzling that more parents don’t wear helmets. It’s probably the result of a host of factors, but I’ll mention three.

      First, many states have mandatory helmet laws that only cover children.

      Second, as you mentioned, adults are overly optimistic about their degree of control over their risk (“I’ll just be more careful!”). But parents are rightly skeptical of similar claims from their children. For an overview of biases under the larger umbrella category of overoptimism, see here and here.

      Third, people systematically alter the way they make decisions when they are deciding for others. I find this especially fascinating. When deciding for others, people tend to focus only on the most salient feature of the choice–here, whether helmets prevent or mitigate injuries–and downplay the importance of other considerations like having a bad hair day. But for themselves, the bad hair day weighs more heavily in their calculus. This may be due, at least in part, to our notions of responsibility. As you said, we would feel guilty if our child was injured under our watch. Perhaps the prospect of that guilt greatly influences our decisions. For a brief overview of the relevant research, see this piece, footnotes 256-264).

      For an overview of issues related to helmet use, including whether kids shift from biking to skateboarding when helmet laws only cover the former, see two recent pieces, here and here.