a response to "The day I left my son in the car"

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In one of my mommy groups we have posts called "Unpopular Opinions" and I have a feeling the following rant may, in fact, be unpopular to many. Regardless, after reading this article about a woman who left her child alone in a car (on purpose) and the events that followed, I felt inclined to write my opinion (because people care, right?!). Let's call it cathartic, I need to get it out.

This entry is in response to an article I read today: The day I left my son in the car

I can't adequately summarize the lengthy essay so to understand fully what I'm talking about, feel free to give it a read.

My (very) brief synopsis: mom left her 4 year old in the car while she ran into a store for 5 min (it was a cool day, he was ready to throw a tantrum wanted to happily stay in the car playing on an ipad), a bystander recorded it and called police, mom was later charged and the court case went on for some time. She ended up with community service. She wrote a lot about people feeling for her, understanding her actions and basically saying that we are way over protective as a society.

"I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes."


Here are my (somewhat disjointed) thoughts.

The feel of the essay is that it was written partially to rationalize and excuse her decision to leave a four year old unattended in a car. Yes, she does say she never did it again, she does say she second guessed herself before doing it, and a few times implies that it wasn't ideal. She never outright says she made a bad decision.

She goes on to talk a lot about how over-protective we are as a society and how things used to be. I get that. I often talk about how when I was younger (probably too young), I was able to literally roam the small town with lived in with little to no restrictions or supervision. Sure, my behavior wasn't always ideal, but I never got hurt or caused too much trouble. My mom didn't worry I was going to get kidnapped. Do we live in the same world? I honestly don't know but it sure doesn't feel like it. Maybe I'm just one of those over-protective moms she talks about, but some risks I'm not willing to take.

I digress.

Yes, we're over protective. We don't need to follow our kids everywhere and hover over them until they're 18 (despite the overwhelming urge to do so). Her son was four. FOUR. Again, we are overprotective, we (as a society) may be trying to protect our children from risk and harm that isn't always present. I get it. But in this case it truly feels like she's using the whole overprotective epidemic as an excuse for a really crappy judgement call.

To stop being overprotective we need to first start disciplining children (and by discipline I mean having rules, fostering respect and manners, and giving children structure and consistency NOT spanking). We then need to give them freedom. Freedom that takes into consideration the child's age and stage. For instance, letting a responsible 10 year old (I partially say 10 because I know that's the age children are 'allowed' to be home alone here) home after school, or not hovering over your child learning to walk (so hard), not jumping up like a lunatic every time your child falls, making them own mistakes, not scolding teachers for not giving kids grades they didn't earn etc. That doesn't mean we throw safety and caution out the window and it sure as heck doesn't mean we leave four year olds alone in cars in parking lots. It's just my opinion but in my opinion that's just not okay. No way, no how.

No, it wasn't hot out, yes you locked the doors, and sure, you only took 5 minutes. You can't predict what can happen in an intended five minutes. I never intend to take more than 5 minutes in Walmart, but it never fails I pick the longest line, the debit is down, I run into everyone I've ever me in my life, and I knock over a display of sunscreen. Sh!t happens. 5 minutes is rarely 5 minutes. Regardless, a lot can go down in 5 minutes and a four year old simply doesn't have the capacity to react rationally, safely and responsibly should something unpredictable happen.

The essay also vilifies the bystander who took the video and called police. It suggested said bystander should have said something to the mother, or that they were a jerk who was simply hiding out in the parking lot, judging parents and sitting in 'wait' to cause trouble for someone. Assumptions much?!

"I picture this concerned someone standing beside my car, inches from my child, holding a phone to the window, recording him as he played his game on the iPad. I imagined the person backing away as I came out of the store, watching me return to the car, recording it all, not stopping me, not saying anything, but standing there and dialing 911 as I drove away. Bye now. At this point, almost a year had passed since it happened. I could hear my lawyer shuffling papers. I looked down and saw that my hands were shaking. My hands were shaking, but unlike before, I wasn’t afraid. I was enraged."

Isn't it much more likely that someone in the parking lot saw a mom leaving a pre-schooler in a car and thought 'that doesn't seem right' and video-taped it (because who isn't armed with an iphone these days?). How would the bystander know mom was only planning to run in for 5 minutes (although I don't think that matters anyways)? Why is this person the 'bad guy'?

I just can't comprehend the outrage at this person. Feels a little like deflection to me.

Despite my frustration with this article I really do agree with some of her points but it simply didn't align with the basis of her argument, her her decision to leave a four year old unattended in public. A egregious decision. It's hard to focus on the crux of the essay, which I think was that we worry too much and are hovering, sheltering, and not permitting our kids to be kids, because her example was so ill-fitting.

If she was talking about not driving with her children for fear of getting in an accident, or not letting her child play outside for fear they'd get dirty and sick. If she talked about not leaving the room for fear something would happen to her child, or staring a video monitor all night while her child slept. Even if she talked about not letting her child take the school bus because she felt only was a safe driver I could understand. This isn't what she was talking about. BOTTOMLINE: we are talking about a 4 year old. 


She was charged, which I also don't necessarily agree with (feels a little like waste of resources to me) but she was wrong. A warning would have likely been sufficient for a first 'offense'. I truly can't find a part of me that believes leaving a four year old alone is okay. Does that make me overprotective? I honestly don't think that it does (that doesn't mean other things I do don't make me overprotective, but this isn't all about me).

I will let that be the end of my rant for now. WHEW, that feels better.

I am confident that not everyone will agree with me and I may even get some backlash, I am okay with that. I am also REALLY curious what other people think about it.

What are your thoughts???

One more point: by leaving him in the car she is contributing to another significant problem of parents and children these days: letting children have too much control. She doesn't "parent" him in the moment she leaves him. He was not listening and she let him decide what was going to happen and therefore potentially put him at risk. Since when do we let four year olds control our behavior?
Sure, we're overprotective, but another problem is that we let our children control our behavior. We sometimes fail to parent because it's easier to give in. And sometimes when we give in, we do it in times where we really shouldn't.
This could have been a learning moment for her son, yes, he wanted to stay in the car, but it wasn't safe and it isn't allowed. He should have been told no, tantrum or no tantrum, and been made to come into the store.
Do we live in fear of tantrums and change our behavior to avoid them? Do we constantly accommodate our children regardless of things we need to do? No. That is a whole other issue she failed to address but actively contributed to.

Okay, done for real.


  1. I feel like this happens all the time here! And it's awful. I don't have kids of my own but I'm an aunt and a teacher, so I think I can comment on this! (feel free to tell me if I'm wrong) I completely agree with you. It is about discipline. The reason she left her kid in the car alone on the iPad was because she wanted to be quick and didn't want him as a distraction. I have been in stores when kids are screaming and causing a ruckus, not wanting to be in the cart, wanting a toy their parents say they can't have, etc....and the parents deal with it...they don't decide to lock their child in the car in the parking lot. Things happen in 5 mins! Things happen in a split second.

    1. you're entitled to your opinion whether you have children or not!
      I agree with you, it was for her own convenience and anything could have happened.
      I'd rather come across someone in a store with a tantrum-throwing child than seeing that child left alone in a car. There's overprotective parenting and then there's being a parent. In that moment, her decision to leave the child, was not parenting. Parenting would have been saying 'no, you're coming in with me, I cannot leave you in here alone' enough said.

  2. I was also really frustrated with the article. She used something valid (culture of overprotective parents) to excuse her bad decision. A four year old can easily get out of his car seat. He can open the car door. Yes it's unlikely that he'd get kidnapped but he could easily wander around the parking lot and get hit by a car. Four is WAY too young.
    She really annoyed me by trying to play the victim. Ugh.

  3. Completely agree. Four is too young. Period.

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  5. The most dangerous point in the child's day was when his mom started driving with him in the car. Far more children are injured on the roads than are harmed when they are alone for a few minutes in a car. Yet we don't see people reported for driving their kids around, do we? I would be interested in your perspective on this.

    1. I agree, that is the highest risk place for children.
      I guess I am of the opinion (and I'm clear, it is JUST my opinion) that there are some necessary risks in this life and others that aren't 'necessary'. Driving (responsibly and with appropriate car seats etc) seems (to me) to be one of those necessary risks. Leaving a four year old alone in a car, not so much.

      I also want to point out that I appreciate the way you posed this question. It is nice to be able to have a conversation about differing view points without being attacked.

    2. Thanks. I am a father of four and have always been very protective, and leaving a four year old in a car alone isn't something I would instinctively do. However, I think that we as a society have become hyper-sensitized to the concept of risk due to the fact that we have 24 hour media blaring headlines about events that statistically we should never expect to happen.

      We've recently seen kids get hurt when their jump houses got picked up by the wind. Playing in a jump house would not be considered a "necessary risk" but I don't think people are getting arrested for allowing that either.

    3. I really do hear what your saying and I agree with the majority of it. Particularly that we are hyper-sensitive and we shelter and hover children and that leaves them ill-prepared for the 'real world'. I just can't get behind her original decision.

      Really, we could bring up all of the things that kids do where something bad could happen (which would be really anything, because children can unfortunately die in their sleep). I just cannot support the original decision to leave a four year old in the car.

      I also felt that she had some amazing points but that some of those would have been better suited for a whole essay on their own. I don't feel like she would have been being overprotective if she had have made him get out of the car and go with her, so it didn't seem to fit as an example.

      I think my frustration stems from such an extreme and (what I see as) ill-fitting example being used.

  6. Thank you for writing this response. I agree that the article you're referring to was a huge rationalization where the writer never, ever seemed to really "get" that leaving a child alone in a car is just plain wrong, because of the potential for harm of some kind, including the child being scared, and for all the other reasons you mentioned.

    What gets me is: most of the people commenting on that article seem to have forgotten this one thing: ***children are not supposed to EVER be unsupervised!!!!!****

    All the people supporting that article's author seem bent on minimizing what happened instead of thinking about how to prevent a child from possibly having a serious accident or worse.

    1. Did you just say that children should never be unsupervised? Do you sleep? If you do, do you hire someone to watch your child sleep? In reality, the author of the story may have been as close to the child from car to store as she would be if he was in an upstairs bedroom and she was in the backyard doing yard work. Children should absolutely have unsupervised time. It allows them to problem solve, learn how to deal with peers, etc. in ways not possible if mommy or daddy steps in every moment.

      Back to the article, I support the author's right to parent in the way that works for her and her children. Since neither you or I know her or her child we have no place to judge what her child can handle, whether she made the right choice for herself or her son. I'm sure her son would say she made a great choice because he got to play the ipad. I'm sure she would say the choice was fine because she got the headphones and got back underway without a tantrum and a meltdown. In the lives of the two people that matter in the scenario there was no downside. The problem only arose when someone outside of the situation who does not know the mother or the son decided they knew best.

    2. for what it's worth Melanie, I don't think supervision necessarily means being able to see your child at all times. I think it's appropriate and healthy for children to learn to be and play independently. Supervision to me, is more about safety and being close enough that you could respond in case of an emergency.

  7. Like you said, there are necessary risks that can't be avoided, and then situations like this that are never acceptable. I can't imagine leaving a FOUR year old alone in the car, even for a second. The chances of them doing something to harm themself is too great. The most frustrating thing is that she still doesn't seem to understand that it was wrong. Sigh...some people.

  8. I don't think leaving your child unattended to run into the store for a few minutes is always and immediately a bad thing. As another commenter pointed out, it is far more likely the child would have been harmed on the drive to/from the store than while sitting in the car for a few minutes. It wasn't a hot day, the car's proximity to the storefront was reasonable, the child was happily involved in a game. Realistically, what could have gone wrong on that particular day?

    Ms. Brooks was harried that day. I don't know her child. I don't know what he is like as a traveler. I don't know how bad his tantrums can be, how long they might last, how difficult it would be to travel with him if he is still fuming over not being able to play his game. I don't know if he can get out of his car seat. I don't know how absorbed in the game he gets while playing. These are things I do not know but Ms. Brooks does. She is the best person to evaluate the things her child can and cannot do. It wasn't a miracle that her son was okay when she returned to the car - there wasn't a real risk he would be harmed while strapped to his car seat on that particular day. She knew that. The woman who videotaped her son did not.

    The belief that if we just watch our kids closely enough, we can prevent any and all accidents and injury is troubling to me because it simply isn't possible to watch your kid every second of every day and it isn't true that watching prevents everything. Perhaps we should work harder to assess real versus perceived risks, and not punish others simply because they make choices that fall outside our comfort zones.

    As a parent I find myself making decisions that go against my parental instincts because I'm afraid that someone on the outside - who doesn't know me, my kid, my parenting methodology, etc. - will misconstrue my permissive style. How sad is that?

    Please note, I am in no way advocating that it is okay to leave a child unattended when weather puts the child at risk for hyperthermia or hypothermia.

    1. I agree Christie, it's not always a bad thing. There are no absolutes. I just think four is way too young to leave unattended while you're completely out of sight.

      I agree that it isn't always possible to watch our children (and I don't think that's healthy either) but I still think in this particular case, the child should have been supervised.

      I don't think this mom should have been charged or persecuted to the extent she was; however, she clearly still thinks she was in the right.

      Her overall message (about overprotective parents) was valid and accurate, I just think her example made the argument flawed.

      Also, I just want to say I appreciate the comments, feedback, and dialogue without attacking or being belligerent. I can't tell you how much I value that.

    2. Christie, I appreciate your response. You hit the nail on the head in my opinion.

  9. Omg! I haven't read the article yet but I agree with you! The risks outweigh the pros (if any ) of leaving a child in a car! Honestly, we are parents- our children have tantrums, can tey our patience but that is why we are parents. We need to teach them and care for them! The worse things can happen in those 5 minutes! I read this at a timely time. Just yesterday I was at the grocery store with Gabrielito. The only parking spot I could find was pretty far away from a cart corral. Well I am definitely the type that always outs the cart way-pet peeve of mine if they are out of place! Well anyway- here I am leaving the store and I have everything in the car including Gabriel. And fir a split second I think well I can walk over to the cart corral and Gabriel will be okay. Well little did I know that this old man was watching me. And as I debate, I of course decided not too! I thought even in the 30 secs of me putting the cart back something can hapoen! So I put the cart in a less annoying place ehere no car could get at it . And ai didn't keave Gabriel alone. Well that got me a big chastizing comment from the old man lol! But I wouldn't have changed my decision! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Oh the cart debate! I've had that debate in my head so many times. I know people get pissed if you leave the cart but too bad!
      Now what I do (because it's nicer out) is keep her in the cart while I unload the groceries or whatever, then take her for a ride to the cart coral and then carry her back to the car.
      oh the joys!

    2. Now why didn't I think of that?! LOL

    3. you'd be surprised how long it took me to think of that! hahaha

    4. Haha! I think we are traumatized because of our freezing winter!

    5. hahah when in doubt, we will blame the weather!

  10. So sorry for the typos Shaunacey! I am on my ioad :/

  11. Only recently have I started to let my teen daughter stay in the car for a few minutes when she doesn't want to go into the store. I think there are things that can happen that are not in your control so it's just better to keep them with you. I'm on the overprotective side but to me it's not worth the risk.

  12. Why is it up to this bystander to decide what is the correct parenting choice for another mother and son? She does not know the mother. She does not know the son. To question the mother's educated opinion of what her son can handle is rude and judgemental. If the bystander is concerned the bystander can keep an eye on the child from a distance. That being said if the the child is in the car happily playing, not distressed, not flushed or sweating or showing physical signs of distress, why does the bystander need to record the child at all? And especially why does she need to call the cops?

    (An aside: am I the only one that finds it creepy that a stranger is creeping up on her child and recording him? I find that more strange than anything. If the person recording was a man he probably would be seen by another bystander and recorded and turned in for being a "child molesting perv" or something. If someone did that to me now, as an adult, I'd find it creepy.)

    This is like the people who call the police because children are playing at the park or playing on the front lawn and no parent is present. Is this a crime? If the child is happy, having fun, not crying because they are lost or alone, why MAKE them distressed by having the cops interfere with the children or parent? It all seems so unnecessary when there is no sign of imminent danger or obvious abuse.

    1. I don't think that the bystander was in the 'right' and yes, it could potentially be creepy. I guess I just have a hard time flipping all the blame to the bystander. There are many possibilities as to why they started taping, a plausible reason is that they saw a mom leaving a rather young child. It may have made more sense in the moment to approach the mom about the concerns, but they didn't. I still don't think that makes them the person who should bare the brunt of mom's frustration.

      You're right. There's a lot we don't know. I'm truly trying to see it from all sides and perspectives; however, no matter how I look at it, leaving a 4 year old in a car will never be okay to me. That is only my opinion but I feel strongly about it. Sure, the kid was happy. My one year old is happy eating dog food but that doesn't mean I let her do it. Some children are happy playing with lighters, does that mean we should let them?

    2. I see things on a "scale of imminent danger" and to me there is no imminent danger in leaving the 4 year old in the car for 10 minutes on a temperate day. I see a 4 year old with a lighter as a more imminent danger and would stop that from happening. But I recognize that other people have a different opinion/ranking system on the "scale of imminent danger." So I can understand that someone may see a 4 year old in the car and react on "high alert." I just don't see that we have the right to impede on someone else's decision making and ranking system, especially when we don't know the people.

      To decide that I/you know better for someone else in a 5 minute situation seems a bit too much for me. If I knew the mother, knew the child, had some back story as to if the mother was neglectful in a multitude of other ways then maybe I could judge a 5 minute situation. Did the mother hit her child? Was it a hot and sunny day? Did the mother appear intoxicated or "off" in a way that I might think she forgot her son? Those are situations that might cause me to be on alert and cause me to intervene. But intervention could be talking to the mother not necessarily calling the police. But for me, this specific 5 minute situation would never cause me to be on alert because to me there was nothing wrong. And with no law on the books in that jurisdiction, I find it odd that her lawyer didn't protect her from the over-reaching police who were charging her with a "grey area" offense.

      So I guess the question is how do we deal with having our "high alert" triggered when the other person doesn't feel it's even a mild alert sort of situation? How do we co-exist in a way that doesn't throw good parents under the bus and unintentionally hurt the child we were trying to protect? At some point someone in the system needs to use some common sense and in this case that never seemed to happen. Because once CPS is involved there is a very real chance that mother could lose her children and I think we can all agree that in this case, being a ward of the state was not in the better interest of the child.

    3. I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I just think at 4, even though at the moment she left him it all seemed okay, things can change quickly and a 4 year old (no matter how smart or developmentally advanced) is able to think out a quick and rational response. He wasn't scared when she left, but what 4 year old do you know that doesn't change on a dime? A bird could fly into the window and scare him, a bug in the car... anything.
      And as in my original argument, 5 minutes is very rarely every only 5 minutes.
      Do I think she's a bad mom? No. Do I think she made the wrong call, absolutely.
      Also, CPS doesn't just "take" kids. For someone so intent on people not judging a mom for one situation you certainly seem comfortable making very huge (and incorrect) assumptions and judgment about an entire agency (or group of agencies). The likelihood of CPS apprehending a child who was left once in a car is slim to none (and closer to none).

    4. That's fair about CPS. So while they may not take the children, they certainly put otherwise good parents on the defensive over decisions they make for their families. This mother is now on the CPS "radar" and thus may find herself second guessing every decision she makes to avoid another run in with CPS. The initial situation did not warrant a visit from CPS in my opinion.

      We'll agree to disagree.


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