Leaving Your Kids in the Car Shouldn't Get You Arrested

car steering wheelIt was just a couple weeks ago that my husband and I left our boys, who are 8 and 6 years old, in the truck while we made a quick grocery stop. It was a cool rainy day, we were gone for maybe five minutes, our kids had fun chatting about Minecraft while my husband and I enjoyed a brief moment of adult time.

I don't leave them in the car a lot, but I've certainly done it. On weather-appropriate days, in a locked vehicle, when I'm going to be gone for the amount of time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn? Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with it. But I won't be leaving them on their own again for a long, long time -- and the reason is both sad and infuriating.


I decided the car is officially off-limits for a kid on their own when I read this powerful Salon essay, "The Day I Left My Son in the Car." In it, author Kim Brooks details what happened after she left her 4-year-old son for a few minutes while she bought a pair of child headphones for an upcoming flight: A "Good Samaritan" (this is me doing exaggerated air quotes) captured video of her son on their cellphone camera and called the police. Brooks was eventually charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor -- a strange-sounding charge that was the result of what her lawyer described as a legal gray area -- resulting in legal fees, 100 hours of community service, and court-required parenting education classes.

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Her experience is nightmarish to read about and prompted me to research the laws in my own state of Oregon. As it turns out, ORS 163.545 states that leaving a child under the age of 10 unattended "in or at any place for such period of time as may be likely to endanger the health or welfare of such child" is a misdemeanor crime: child neglect in the second degree.

Hol. Ee. Shit.

Oregon's law is vague enough for police to make their own judgment calls, which is ... scary. Officer Sara McClurg with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office crime prevention unit went on record saying that being charged with neglect for leaving a child in the car is "definitely a possibility." She added,

There could be a sexual predator watching that mom. That's all it takes.

McClurg tells parents to "imagine the worst-case scenario" when they're trying to decide whether to leave their kid. Imagine the worst-case scenario. That's how we're supposed to live our lives these days.

This is exactly the mentality Kim Brooks talks about in her essay -- the culture of fearmongering we live in. She asks why with crime rates lower than they were a generation ago, activities we once viewed as harmless (kids heading out to play by themselves, or briefly waiting in a car) are now not only socially taboo, but illegal. She talks about sabotaging ourselves with impossible parenting standards and living in chronic terror that something will happen to our children:

Anything could happen, is a common refrain voiced by such parents. And I know what they mean. We’ve seen the television movies about abducted children. We’ve heard the heart-rending stories of kids injured in carjackings, or forgotten in sweltering cars. And once you imagine something, imagine what it must have been like for that parent or child who suffered it, it’s not a great leap to imagine it happening to you or your child, and then, if you’re like most parents, you will do anything in your power to prevent it. It’s not a matter of likelihood or statistical significance, but the terrible power of our imagination.

I remember the terrible power of my imagination nearly smothering me when my children were babies. Dangers lurked around every corner: every bumped head was a fractured skull, every sniffle was a fatal disease. Now that they're older I don't feel quite so panicked by their frailty, but I worry about their education, their happiness, their future, and their ability to make it through the school years without being shot by a classmate.

If I indulged my ability to imagine the worst-case scenario in any given situation, I would eventually need to be medicated and locked up. The worst-case scenarios are that my children will get in a car accident on the way to the store and die, they'll trip over something in the parking lot and die, they'll eat contaminated food and die, they'll be diagnosed with cancer and die, they'll be murdered in their sleep while my husband and I aren't watching them for, oh my god, eight full hours.

Is this what we want to teach our children? That they should constantly be thinking of the worst that could possibly happen? Then, my god, why do we do this to ourselves? Because we can't control the world. We can't always stop our children from being hurt. To believe that everything is within our power, that it's our constant never-wavering vigilance that keeps our children breathing, is the surest path to ensure that everything good in our lives is replaced by soul-crushing anxiety.

If there is a law that says my children aren't allowed to be alone in the car until they're 10, so be it. I will abide by that law. But it's a fucked-up symptom of a creeping sickness in our society, one that's not just aimed at parents. It tells us we aren't in charge, it tells us to second-guess our choices, and above all, it tells us to always, always, always be afraid.

Do you think it should be illegal for older kids to be left in a car? (I hope it's obvious I'm not talking about days when the heat is dangerous.)

Image via Karlis Dambrans/Flickr

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