Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Working with Parents (1/2)
Parents are frequently the target of behavioral programs designed to keep children, particularly young children, safe. These programs usually seek to persuade parents either to remove guns from their homes or to store guns safely (unloaded and in locked storage areas). Working with parents to promote child safety is fraught with challenges, however. Two common approaches to changing how and whether parents store guns in their homes—Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws and pediatric- based counseling—appear to show only limited promise in convincing parents to change their gun ownership and storage practices.
Challenges in Working with Parents
Several obstacles present challenges when working with parents to reduce their children's likelihood of injury, including gun injury. These include the level of parental interest and involvement in their children's lives, parental beliefs that their children are at little risk of injury, and parental misperceptions about their children's ability to protect themselves.
First, children at risk for injury typically come from disadvantaged homes6-8 and tend to be poorly supervised. 7 In addition, mothers of injured children tend to be less educated, to be emotionally overwhelmed, to lack energy, and to be less involved with their children. These mothers are often less assertive and energetic in dealing with their children and more resistant to behavioral change.8
Another obstacle to working with parents to reduce gun-related injuries to their children is that parents often hold false beliefs about their children's risk for injury. Most parents believe that their children are unlikely to be the victims of a serious injury. Furthermore, they view injuries as unavoidable products of fate.9,10 Parents tend to believe that the environment, rather than the person, must change in order to protect children from injury, which may lead to complacency and a lack of faith in programs designed to alter parental behaviors or the behaviors of their children.9,10
Parents seem to be especially unaware of their children's interest in guns and are unable to predict how their children will behave around guns. In a recent study of boys ages 8 to 12, only 13% of the boys' parents believed that their sons had a high interest in firearms; 64% believed that their sons had a low interest. Apparently the parents were mistaken. Of the boys whose parents perceived them to have a low interest in guns, 65% handled a .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun when they found it in a drawer. Thirty-five percent pulled the trigger.11
Another misperception of parents is that a painful injury will teach their children to be more careful in the future.12 Research has not supported this "once burned, twice shy" assumption. In fact, children at risk for injury are typically children who have been previously injured.13 Other parents hold false optimism about the safety of their children—optimism that is reinforced every time their children engage in a dangerous behavior that does not result in injury.
The final obstacle to working with parents is their overconfidence in their children's ability to take care of themselves. Most parents believe that their children know more about safety than the children actually do,14,15 and may therefore feel confident in leaving their children unsupervised for brief periods of time. In one survey, most parents agreed that preschool children require constant or close supervision, but felt that elementary-age children require constant supervision only in risky situations and close supervision in moderately risky areas.16 Other parents make even more dangerous appraisals of their children's abilities. In one study, 13% of mothers of two-year-olds in Sweden believed that their children could safely cross a street on their own.17 (The American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] recommends that children ages seven and younger always be supervised when crossing a street.18) In another survey, 23% of a sample of gun-owning parents reported that they trust their 4- to 12-year-old children with a loaded firearm.19