On Leaving Toddlers Alone in Cars

On Leaving Toddlers Alone in Cars July 29, 2018

This is a post about the super-powerful instinct of human beings, especially mothers, to avoid the scarlet letters of guilt and blame.

child abuse
New Jersey child in a car. (Eli Christman, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

It’s the same fearful emotion that makes religions proliferate and perpetuate, as people compulsively try to mimic the mindset of the majority. And it makes even loving, responsible moms terrified to give their kids more freedom than the momentary cultural norm in their societies.

On this quiet Sunday in the heartland, I am offering a very thought-provoking article related to this quandary. Titled “Motherhood in the Age of Fear: Women are being harassed and even arrested for making perfectly rational parenting decisions,” the New York Times piece was written by Midwestern writer Kim Brooks. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, from which this Times article derives.

‘I was tired’

The crux of the article was a fated moment years before when Brooks, driving to the airport with her then 4-year-old son in mild weather, decided to make a quick pit stop somewhere. But her son really really didn’t want to get out of the car. She made several rapid calculations:

“I took a deep breath. I knew what I was supposed to do. But I was tired. I was late. I didn’t want, at that moment, to deal with a meltdown. … He wasn’t asking to Rollerblade in traffic.”

So, she got out, did her business and returned, where she found her son right where she left him, quietly and safely playing a game.

But a stranger had watched as she left her young child unattended and went inside. And then the state authorities contacted her, at the airport. Unbeknownst to Brooks at the time, 19 U.S. states have statutes specifically against leaving children unattended in motor vehicles.

Although Brooks’ case was eventually settled with 100 hours of community service and no record, her ordeal was excruciating and the legalities of it dense and complex.

‘Bad mom’

But of interest to me and this blog is the enormous fear-fueled energy unleashed by Brooks to rationalize what she had done in a way that didn’t make her feel like a “bad mom.” I mean, she penned a book about it. In her Times piece, she wrote:

“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.

“As one mother put it to me, ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’ In other words, risk assessment and moral judgment are intertwined.”

Still, for many of us (myself included), leaving a little child alone in a car even for a few minutes “in this day and age” just seems risky. But is it really?

Brooks recounted a study whose data indicated an extremely low probability of child abduction. According to the study, “you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger,” Brooks wrote.

Risky decisions

Whether or not that’s actually true is fairly debatable. The point is that American mothers — and likely many other moms elsewhere — are understandably paranoid in the current milieu, where a seemingly innocuous decision can bring an avalanche of public shaming, degrading and defaming.

How safe should our children be? As every mom is likely already all too aware in a schizophrenic era bounded on he extremes by “helicoptering” and “free-range” parenting, respectively, it’s complicated.

This article shows that the consequences for choosing wrongly, even if rationally, can be devastating.


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