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, (“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 Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013. Originally published on Mothering in March 2014. Photo credit: Getty Images

52 thoughts on “Is it Okay to Leave Your Kids Alone in the Car While You Run In Somewhere?”

  1. Leaving the car on with the air conditioning running and locking the car can help prevent both heat exhaustion and kidnapping. Before I started driving, we went lots of places together as a family and I stayed in the car with my children while my husband ran in. Now I leave them home with him while I grocery shop, because he works from home and I learned how to drive. Not everyone has those circumstances – they are only suggestions and they work for our family.

  2. I follow free range parenting to fight the urge to be afraid for my kids ALL THE TIME. the statistics are helpful, and encouraging.

  3. I pretty regularly leave my kids in the car in the driveway to run back to the house for something. and its probably 50/50 if I leave the toddler in the car for preschool drop off/pick up (its a very private area, cars visible from the school, and during the entire pick up/drop off time the area is filled with parents and someone who didn’t belong would be noticed very, very quickly. I feel very safe there) Regardless of how safe I feel in my driveway, or at preschool, my keys come with me, 100% of the time. Realistically, I know that, given reasonable weather conditions, leaving a sleeping child in a car to run a quick 5-10 minute errand, the biggest risk is the risks illustrated in the article: a stranger interfering, calling the police, having CPS in your life. That risk is big enough that I don’t do it.

  4. Bad parenting to leave your child in a car while you run and do something! Somebody could steal your car (with your child in it), somebody could kidnap your child, your child could get out of their seat and decide to play “car” and then suddenly the car gets out of gear and rolls down the street – anything is possible. Am I supposed to feel bad that an idiot parent left their young child unattended when they should not have? Really you have to ask “well who will take care of said child if mommy & daddy are splitting rocks doing hard time”? How about some one better than can take care of that child.

    1. have you ever lived in a foster home? just wondering why you would think they are capable of raising children more safely than the parents? (at least in this situation) I don’t think living your child in the car while you run in for milk or to pay for your gas is an offense worth losing your child over. I personally wouldn’t do but not because i think it is wrong but one I love in Tampa Florida and is simply too hot and i would never live my car running for AC here Car jacking happen daily and then becasue of crazy people who think your business is theirs and that they have the right to judge your entire existence on one act.
      I wonder what you think about the couple in NY who almost lost both of their kids because they walked home from the park? Would you condemn those kids to the foster care system as well.

  5. Wow! Bad parenting, really? I am super paranoid about my baby’s safety, but yeah, sometimes I leave him in the car for A MINUTE while I run inside to grab something. Here’s a recent scenario. We are picking up take-out food to take to my gramma for lunch (because I didn’t get a chance to cook something to take as I usually would). It is 0 degrees outside and the sidewalks are icey. My nearly three year old is bundled up & strapped into his carseat- do I want to drag him out into the frigid wind to run in quickly and grab a bag of food? I leave the car running & lock the doors, taking my spare door key with me. I have a note I keep in the glove box for these occasions that reads: “Hi, Mama had to run inside for just a moment- left at (whatever time it is) Cell # (my phone number). Thank you for your concern (and I mean that!)” for anyone passing by who is worried by the sight of my child alone in the car. They can see for themselves how long I’ve actually been gone and my number is there if anyone sees anything amiss. I also park in view of where I am if possible- and I live in a town of 850 people which is also a factor. I also leave him in the car in my driveway if he’s fallen asleep on the way home so I can unload his diaper bag & whatever else first so I can just carry him in. I don’t even use the note in that circumstance as obviously my neighbors all know us. For the record, I would NEVER do this in a city oranywhere I was unfamiliar with the lay of the land!! But anyway- I think it’s ok in certain situations- and certainly not worthy of blanket statements condemning anyone who would ever do such a thing!

    1. Too lazy to take your toddler into get a bag of food, while someone just broke your car window and took off with the car. That only takes 5 seconds.

      1. It takes a bit longer than 5 seconds, and statistically speaking, car thieves don’t want the kid so I’d they know one is in there, the car is actually better protected. The note would likely ward off child predators because they look for an easy target. An attentive parent takes away the easy target aspect. And the child would be in far more danger from the cold and ice.

        1. You obviously do not have children…as it takes FAR longer than “5 seconds” to unload, bring in and unload, then bring out and reload ONE child…never mind 3 like I did! So I *ALWAYS* had a spare key and leave the car running with the a/c or heater on appropriate levels and locked all the doors. Even still, I had one busy body SCREAM at me at the Dollar Store when, after loading ALL of the kids(one of whom was 8 years old!!) into the car and strapped, I realized I had left a bag in the I pulled up to the front door, left it running, locked the door, ran in and grabbed the bag. It LITERALLY took me 30 seconds to run in and get it and when I came out, the lady was taking my plate and screaming and yelling at me, but she NEVER ONCE ASKED ME WHAT HAD HAPPENED?? Who the HELL appointed you a judge of right and wrong? We all do the best we can and with three kids and a disability, I know what’s best for ME.

          And you know what? While we sit here in this country, reporting each other instead of protecting each other as a COMMUNITY should, we are allowing the powers that be to take our freedoms away. Don’t protest because you are a law-abiding citizen, eh? How about when they come after something you think is ok but they don’t? It won’t matter then because you allowed them to take those freedoms away.

      2. It’s not laziness. Do you even have children? I’m guessing not.

        Can someone please get the stats to back this up? What is actually safer? Leaving a child in a locked car in the icy winter for a couple of minutes, or dragging them out onto the ice and crossing a parking lot. It seems that there are far more risks/hazards to removing the child from the car. What if another car loses control and skids and runs over the child? What if the child slips on the ice, falls, and gets a head injury, or dies? What if, while crossing the parking lot, a psycho with a gun opens fire and shoots the kid? What if a psycho runs up and snatches the kid? What if a bullet falls from the sky while he’s walking outside and kills the kid? What if a gust of wind comes and blows the kid over and he falls on a branch, impaling himself?

        This isn’t actually about what’s safer. It’s about busy body control freaks wanting to be citizen cop because they think they know better. Judgmental fools.

  6. Depends on the variables but I have left my kiddos in the car before in certain situations and I’m sure there will come a time when I’ll have to do it again.

  7. For me the deciding factors (not necessarily in the order of importance) would be:
    1. Weather/temp – will the inside of the car be an okay temperature?
    2. Responsibility of the child – can the child get in/out of the car by themselves? are they likely to pretend to drive the car? (leaving your manual car in gear, automatic in park, and using your parking brake are always good ideas even if you don’t have a kid that’s likely to pretend drive)

  8. RGC3, take a look at the statistics. I hope you play the lotto because if you think odds are good for abduction, than you must be confident in your ability to play the state lottery!
    Also, the ‘you can never be too careful’ drives me crazy! Then by all means don’t start up your car bc the risk of a crash is much greater. Or don’t being your kid into the store bc a robber might be in there and hold you at gunpoint… And so on.

  9. I have left kids in our own driveway to run in for a forgotten item, but I just cannot take the risk of leaving the car in a public place. The worry isn’t worth the errand, in my opinion.

  10. “Really you have to ask “well who will take care of said child if mommy & daddy are splitting rocks doing hard time”? How about some one better than can take care of that child.”

  11. I agree with some PP’s that it largely depends on several factors…
    1) Age/maturity level of the child – Are they able to understand “Mommy will be right back, keep the doors locked…and if someone tries to get in, scream ‘You’re not my dad/mom'”?

  12. Just wanted to chime in after reading several comments – if you only have ONE child, of COURSE it is easy to bring your child into the store, etc with you – especially if that child is 8 years old and in school 40 hours a week. We home school and have 2 children, soon to be 3. We live in a small town, and I am alone with them 50+ hours a week. If I want to get ANY errands done, they come with me. I do my best to work around hubby’s schedule and timing everything just right, but I am outnumbered by kids and sorry, but not all of us get ‘breaks’ to run errands. We do what we have to do. If I have to run into a store for ONE thing and I can see them from the door, they stay buckled in their seats with doors locked (tinted windows as well). I am gone less than 5 minutes and can see them the entire time. If you were alone with multiple children all the time, you’d want to take that quick trip inside alone rather than dragging all of them out of the car, into the store where they will get into things and ask for things, etc – basically, what would take 5 minutes alone (while you can see your kids the entire time and know they are safe) would take at LEAST 15 with all of the kids.

  13. Oh good grief. It’s not that hard to bring kids into the store with you, or plan ahead to do the shopping another time without kids. My husband once passed out in a store. If he’d left the kids in the car, no one ever would have known they were there. They just shouldn’t be out of your sight anywhere around traffic….totally a different thing than leaving them in when you are watching them from the window of your house while you grab the forgotten diaper bag, or whatever. Even the smartest of kids can get distracted and get out and do something impulsive around cars in a parking lot. I am personally glad that police are monitoring this stuff. If it saves one child’s life, then great. If you get ‘inconvenienced’ by a good samaritan calling the police on you, well that is called being allowed to experience consequences for a choice. We need these laws for all the bad apples who are making really poor choices. Those kids need this protection.

    1. By calling the police you are accepting the responsibility of those children, most likely in a good loving home, being taken, and money meant to protect sexually abused and severely neglected children will be wasted on a mom getting stuff done.
      My hubby is a trucker, home 4-5 days a month. My 4yo has been struggling with his car seat for a YEAR. Or takes am average of 10-45 minutes to get him in once an errand is run.
      There is no working around my hubbies schedule or Id only be shopping and running errands 1-2 times a month.
      It’s not black and white, and is been YEARS like around 20 years since the last stranger kidnapping in my area, all other kidnaps have been non custodial parent taking off.

      1. If they were in a loving home they wouldn’t be left alone in a car. Your inability to effectively parent your child is not a good reason to stop reporting neglectful parents. Gentle/AP parenting (and even UP parenting Alfie Kohn style) doesn’t mean no parenting.

        The author is also correct, many of us did grow up in an era when parents just let us run around unsupervised. Many of us were also hurt very badly and had several near misses that make us more concerned about making sure our children don’t have to grow up in a scary world. We allow our children safer unsupervised activities at age appropriate levels rather than thrusting them away from us because they inconvenience us or cause us difficulty.

        Short errands sometimes turn into longer errands and there are many studies showing that cars heat up a lot quicker than those cited in the article. We have one to two deaths a year where I live due to kids being left alone in cars. People passing by a car have no way of knowing whether the child is being left for a few minutes or a few hours, nor are they likely to know how long the child has been in there in the first place. Calling CPS is the only logical option when you see young kids abandoned by negligent and/or uncaring parents.

        1. your an ass. you think these ladies don’t love their kids becuase they leave them in the car while they run in to buy milk….

          1. Swearing makes you sound like a 12 year old. I’m sure all youe pre-teen friends will be impressed but I don’t think your argument is solid.

            Loving somebody and creating a loving home are two different things. Even drug addicts and abusive parents love their kids but that doesn’t mean the home is a loving home. Love is not all it takes to raise kids.
            Parents who make unsafe parenting choices aren’t providing a loving home no matter how much they feel love for their kids.

  14. On days where the weather is mild, I have left my son in his car seat if he falls asleep. I always roll down the windows on my car and park it far up my driveway, right next to our living room window, where I sit to I can frequently look out and make sure he’s ok. I would never leave him in his car seat if it were even remotely hot because I have a black car and it gets super hot. Knowing I have windows down and he’s in clear sight, I can’t image someone considering that neglectful. If I were to wake him from his nap while carrying him inside, he would be all out of sorts for a good hour. I have in the past left my kids in the car to run into the gas station to pay for gas before pumping. I always lock the car and make sure I can see them. I won’t do that anymore because I know someone who did and a police officer noticed and told her that he could have her children taken away

  15. Kids should never be left alone in the vehicle for any amount of time. end of story. Are your kids that much of an inconvenience that you can’t take the extra couple minutes to get them in and out of the car? Anything could happen in the 5 minutes u ran into the store. Ridiculous. And ppl that do should be arrested.

  16. My parents would get out of grade school and walk home alone or with siblings/neighborhood kids, proceed to play outdoors with their friends until their mothers whistled for them to come home for dinner. Were these children in harm or neglected? I don’t believe so. They were permitted to explore and play to their hearts content, becoming strong, independent adults later in life.

    I would love to be allowed to just let my daughter play on our front yard in our condo complex (which I’ve done with the front door open, curtains pulled back, and constantly sticking my head out the door because of the paranoia ingrained in me), but recently a letter went out that children are no longer permitted outdoors without adult supervision. I would love to let her play freely on the park equipment to learn her own boundaries, potentially doing something dangerous which occasionally results in an injury, without another parent “helping” my child to “protect” her.

    I wish I could feel safe enough to leave my child in the car to quickly run a quick errand, but society won’t allow it. I fear the lynch mob that would await my return.

    We are not helping children by doing everything for them and always protecting them…

    1. Thank you! At the age of 9 my younger sister and I walked home from school together 4 whole blocks and waited about 30 minutes until our mom got home and then went out and played till she called us for dinner. We also lived in an apartment complex at that time. As a child I never felt unsafe, I never felt neglected. My mom knew how long it should take us to walk home and promptly called to make sure we were in the house and tell us she was on her way home from work. I firmly believe you can have a good grasp on your children and allow them to safety explore and become independent and responsible without holding their hands the entire time. With my own child I let him play outside with the neighborhood kids, he is 9 and he has a watch and a phone, he checks in every 30 minutes and is never more than a black away. If I look for him outside and he is out of his boundaries then he no longer allowed out for the rest of the day. But I guess this is about children alone in cars. The whole idea of hovering over children until they cannot think or fdependently independently just burns me up though.

  17. I was very over protective never leaving my child in the car, allowing him to play in our driveway by himself, etc. As a result, he had full blown anxiety. I could barely get him to school b/c he was fearful something bad was gonna happen. I learned to chill. The therapist recommended by my school district made me do exercises where he had to leave my side (at seven years old) to get things across the store b/c he was attached at my hip fearful. She even encouraged him to go into the store solo to place an order. I blame this on my inability to let him roam and give him the necessary freedom. Now, I give him much more freedom, and he knows how to tackle situations. I don’t need to rescue him, but he is learning to live and make decisions. He stays in the car now reading his books -rather than going into the store. He’s older though, so this law is inapplicable. Too bad our cars are all electrical, cause back when we were kids, we could just manually roll down the windows when it got too hot when our parents left us in the car. We just need to be cautious that we are protecting our kids but at the same time giving them the skills they need to thrive.

    1. Taking your child with you in a store, gas station or wherever it is should not give them anxiety. You are a helicopter mother, you hovered over your child with everything they did. This is not what the article is about. This has nothing to do with the law and leaving your child in a car. This is pure laziness on the parents part.

      1. wow you can’t win then huh? You will be called names if you stay to close and called names if you give to much independence…It’s been so long since i have been on these mothering sites that i forgot just how judgmental mothers could be of others.

  18. IF you don’t want the responsibility to take your children wherever you go, then do not have kids. I am shocked that so many justify this with statistics. I bet if your child has ever gone missing, you would not have this way of thinking.

  19. I don’t agree with humiliating and criminalizing parents, especially if the parent is acting with a level of instinct he or she is comfortable with. That said, I personally wouldn’t leave my kids in the car to run into the grocery store or anywhere. As a child, I was left in cars frequently. Sometimes for a few minutes. Sometimes for hours. Something about being told, “You can do whatever you want” didn’t sit well with me – even if it was gratifying in the short term. Something about that practice of leaving me in the car made me feel like my parents didn’t want to put forth the effort to “deal” with me or spend real time with me. I want my children to learn that boring things can be fun with the right attitude, and more than that, I want them to know how much I appreciate the seemingly mundane experiences of grocery shopping with them or whatever it is we happen to be doing while out. I am NOT saying that this is what every child feels when a parent leaves them in the car. The most important thing is that we do what instinctively feels right and do the best with where we are with ourselves. I just wanted to share my own experience and current conclusion on the matter.

  20. The thing is, you know how you would never leave your purse in full view on the seat of your locked car, b/c someone can just smash the window and grab it? So if you are somewhere you wouldn’t do that, then why would you leave a kid, which is so much more irreplaceable than a few credit cards?

  21. It’s not that hard to take your children in the store with you…? Ha! We have 6 kids, 10 years and younger, and trust me, between often sleeping babes, car seats and, well, sheer numbers, it can be a real (and time consuming) challenge sometimes! Especially in comparison to the amount of time it would take to run the errand otherwise. We live rurally, too, so there are times that plays into my decisions as well. My older two would really prefer to stay in the car and read a book, (and are responsible enough for me to feel like I could let them), but I don’t, basically out of fear of something exactly like that ‘well meaning’ person. :-/
    I feel like there is a lot of judgment and lack of grace shown in these kind of ‘incidents’. Like most people are assuming that the parent does not love their child/children enough to be careful with them, and make well based, well weighed decisions (in various different situations) on their own children’s behalf. We as a people are not trusting the average good parent to have good loving parenting skills on behalf of our children. I think it is really sad that it has come to this. If you are genuinely concerned for a situation you see, hang out nearby in your own vehicle and watch for a few minutes. Chances are that in almost all the situations, you will see a parent hurrying back to their car and child in short order. 😉

  22. How dare any of you criticize any of these mothers. You dont know circumstances or situation… and to so boldly call them bad mothers worry more about yourbubble wrap kids and less about these children who by the sounds of things arent being punished in 100 degree cars for hours… go ahead get your milk and look out the window every ten seconds just to be sure … ppl are so ignorant frustrating is what it is.

  23. You think that’s bad? ? My neighbors have been harassing us for months. Their second to last cps call included a complaint that I sit in the car with the kids for hours in my driveway. When one of the kids are asleep we sour in the driveway until they wake up. According to these people that’s a cause for removal of my children. We were incredibly lucky to get a caseworker who saw through the bs…. the complaint specifically said i sit with the kids. .. temp controlled, supervised. .. still a cps call. .. wtf??? I asked the caseworker if she has kids. She said no but she works with them often. I asked If she wakes a sleeping child or sits in the car until child wakes up, she agreed, never wake a sleeping child. ..

  24. Personally, I’m not a big fan of leaving my kids in the car to run an errand. However, as a mother of two small children, there is no possible way for me to not leave one child in the car while I attend to the other one when loading and unloading at my own home. I have also been known known to leave them in the car when I have needed to pick items up from a friend’s house. I don’t stick around and chat. I grab what I’m there for and get back to my kids. Alas, I only have two hands. For those who bash these practices or blame it on laziness, I’d like to ask you for other suggestions because with only two hands I’m not sure what else I could do. Kudos to all you moms out there just trying to do your best.

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