Is it Okay to Leave Your Kids Alone in the Car While You Run In Somewhere?

Thank you to Lenore Skenazy, author of the book and blog Free Range Kids, for this guest post.

A Suburban Crime Wave

One mother is hauled off to the police station. Another is clapped in handcuffs. The mothers’ offenses? They let their kids wait in the car while they ran a quick errand.

Yes, these moms did just what yours probably did back when you were a kid. That age-old practice has been criminalized in 19 states in recent years, thanks to a world that seems increasingly unable to distinguish between negligence and normal parenting.

The laws differ in their particulars, but basically they state that a child under age 6, 7 or, in Utah, 9, cannot be left alone in the car for more than 5 or 10 minutes. In Nebraska, having your 6-year-old wait in the car is an offense in the same category as allowing the child to be “deprived of necessary food” or “sexually exploited.” In Louisiana, a second kid-in-car infraction carries a sentence of not less than one year in prison, “with or without hard labor.” That’ll certainly make the kids safer—having mom or dad off breaking rocks in prison.

The impulse behind these laws is not evil, just excessive. Many people and politicians—I suppose the categories overlap—believe that whenever children are left alone in a car they could easily die of heat exhaustion or be kidnapped.

While the kidnapping fear is beyond absurd (doubters, please look up the stats), the heatstroke fear is based on the fact that cars do get hot. Just not in the time it takes to buy a gallon of milk. A San Francisco State University study showed a car’s interior heating up 43 degrees in an hour. A less alarming study by the Animal Protection Institute showed temperatures 10 degrees hotter inside than outside after five hours. Either way, each year about 40 children die of hyperthermia in automobiles.

But according to a group that tracks these statistics, kidsandcars.org (“Love Them, Protect Them”), the overwhelming majority were either forgotten in the car for hours (54%) or climbed into an empty vehicle without anyone’s knowledge and got stuck (31%). This, in a country with 32 million children under the age of 8 taking billions of car trips annually. Any child’s death is a terrible tragedy. But the reflexive call to 911 the minute a child is spied alone in a car is lunacy. Why not wait a minute to see if the parent comes back?

At my blog, Free-Range Kids, I have heard over the past few years, almost monthly, from bewildered parents who have found themselves being treated like criminals. I won’t use their names because, well, they were humiliated (if you think most mug shots look bad, try one of a mother freshly dragged away from her children).

A typical story is the one I heard about from a mother of two who lives in a small town near Utica, N.Y. Last summer, on a 69-degree night, she ran into a grocery store to get some chicken breasts at 6:54(she had just spoken to her husband on her cellphone). In the car she left her 5-year-old girl and 6-month old boy, who was asleep.

At 7:03 (it’s on record) a passerby called 911. Then he pulled a truck behind her car so she couldn’t drive away—which she dearly wanted to do when she emerged from the store moments later. Instead, she had to wait for the police.

The officer, rather than informing the busybody stranger that he shouldn’t prevent the free movement of citizens, told the mother that she was in big trouble. He searched her purse for dangerous objects. Then she had to call her parents to come get the kids, because the cop was taking her to the police station. Her daughter cried as she left.

After that? Three visits from child-protective services to her home. The workers found nothing amiss, but “they have told me if it ever happens again, they will move the courts to have my children placed in foster care,” she said.

Then there was the Oregon mother who realized that she had forgotten to pack her daughter’s life vest as they were leaving for a day at a lake. She parked the car and ran in to retrieve the life vest because—irony alert—she is such a responsible mom. In the couple of minutes she was gone, a police officer noticed the car. She said she was handcuffed, searched, photographed and investigated by child-protective services. But at least she didn’t end up in jail.

Is it really safer to drag kids out of a car, across a busy parking lot, or alongside the street as you rush back home for a kid-sized life vest? The law says yes. Common sense says no. These laws are making criminals out of ordinary people doing ordinary activities that have an infinitesimal chance of ending badly. Except, that is, for the parents.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of Free-Range Kids and TV host of “World’s Worst Mom” on Discovery/TLC International. Her website is www.freerangekids.com. Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013. Originally published on Mothering in March 2014. Photo credit: Getty Images
-

Latest Comments
  1. Catholic Mama March 10, 2014
  2. Jacquelin March 10, 2014
  3. BethanyM March 10, 2014
  4. DoulaSarah March 10, 2014
  5. DoulaSarah March 10, 2014
  6. LiLStar March 10, 2014
  7. RGC3 March 10, 2014
  8. momomama11 March 10, 2014
    • Michelle May 26, 2015
      • Theresa May 27, 2015
        • Mama to all May 27, 2015
  9. mediocrewitch March 11, 2014
  10. 4mycarameldrop March 11, 2014
  11. RGC3 March 11, 2014
  12. momofnatasha March 12, 2014
  13. MamaBear7 March 13, 2014
  14. DoopaMama March 15, 2014
  15. lilvioletmom March 15, 2014
  16. Babygirl2013 March 16, 2014
  17. Catholic Mama March 22, 2014
  18. hippy mum March 27, 2014
  19. Locksmith Luton June 30, 2014
  20. Anonymous May 26, 2015
    • Carrie May 26, 2015
    • cyndel May 27, 2015
      • cicada May 27, 2015
  21. Mary May 26, 2015
  22. tanya May 26, 2015
  23. Tiffany May 26, 2015
    • Holly May 27, 2015
  24. Dee May 26, 2015
    • Michelle May 26, 2015
  25. Michelle May 26, 2015
  26. Sara May 26, 2015
  27. Maya May 27, 2015
  28. Julie May 27, 2015
    • Britt May 27, 2015
  29. Britt May 27, 2015
  30. Holly Gomez May 27, 2015
  31. Tiyah May 28, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *