Letting Your Kid Wait In The Car Is Not The End Of The World

Kids left in cars This month’s Parents Magazine has a seven page article so gut-wrenching you will actually feel your organs ache. It’s called, “You’d Never Forget Your Child in a Car, Right?” and of course it’s about parents who did, complete with photos of their precious kids. You know what happened next. In fact, you know all too well.

But that is exactly the problem. We are becoming so scared of kids dying while forgotten in the car that we’re afraid to even step away for a moment to complete normal tasks.

Lately, we have not only become hyper-aware that kids can die if forgotten in cars, we have come to believe that even if they are left in the car for a very short amount of time — mere minutes — they are in grave danger. But that’s just not true.

Before you jump on me, please consider this one statistic: While 30 to 40 children die each year after being left in the car — a true tragedy — the vast majority either snuck into the car when their parents weren’t looking and got stuck, or were left in the car for hours when their parents forgot them and went into work. So while, yes, cars can heat up fast, these children didn’t die while mom was picking up the pizza. If you are stopping somewhere for five minutes and there is no risk of you prolonging your visit, your child will be ok waiting for you in the car.

What’s more, more than ten times as many kids die as car passengers each year. (This is getting to be a lugubrious column. Sorry about that!) But if we truly don’t want to put our children at risk for death in a car, the first thing we should do is stop driving them anywhere. Not that I’m suggesting that! Of course not. Instead, we all accept the very small risk involved, and drive our kids to ballet.

But increasingly we are not allowed to make that same risk calculation when it comes to whether or not we wake the kids and drag them into the dry cleaners with us. Nineteen states have enacted laws against letting kids wait in cars (the amount of time and age of the child differ by state — here’s a list ). Thanks in part because to articles like the one in Parents, which urges, “If you see any child in a car seat alone in a car, call 911,” about once a month I hear from a mom like this one:

This is going to have to be anonymous because I learned I could actually get into serious trouble with social services for this??!! My 4-year-old goes to pre-k. My 9-month-old had an upper respiratory infection. It was a 20 degree, windy day, and it is a 100 foot walk from the car to the building, so I decided to leave the baby in the heated car while I took her sister in. “I was in the building out of view of the 9-month-old for approximately 30 seconds ”” at worst 45. The car was locked, the car alarm set. I return and the 9-month-old is still sleeping peacefully. I move on with my day and forget about it.” The following week I pull into the pre-k and a cop blocks my car into the parking space and proceeds to interrogate me about my ‘dangerous habit’ of leaving my child in the car. He threatens me with ‘consequences’ if it continues. This, in front of an entire parking lot full of parents, probably wondering if I’m dealing meth to their 4-year-olds”¦

What exactly did they think was going to happen in that 45 seconds?”

My guess is the 911-dialer feared kidnapping by a stranger (the rarest of crimes), or death by hyperthermia (discussed above).

While I don’t blame anyone for worrying, since the media keep telling us that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do, I do blame them for treating the mom like a criminal and calling the cops. Why not be a Good Samaritan and simply wait by the car for a few minutes?

Remember that most of us waited in the car as kids. Our moms were allowed to make their own risk assessments and parenting decisions. We should be too.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. 

(Image:  racorn/shutterstock)

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