Hypothetical: On a cool, autumn morning, a woman drives to the store with her 3-year-old son in the car. She parks the car, and then, because her son has fallen asleep, and because she only has two things on her shopping list, she gets out of the car, locks it, and runs into the store, leaving her sleeping child strapped in his car seat. Ten minutes later, she returns to the car.
Still hypothetical: Another woman is getting into her own car in the same parking lot when she sees the first woman pull up and park. She notices there’s a child in the car and sees the mother leave the car unattended and run into the store. She waits five minutes, and then, concerned for the safety of the child when the mother still hasn’t returned, she calls the police.
Question: Did the second woman make a responsible, caring choice to protect a neglected child from possible danger? Or was the second woman herself the more real danger to the child?
When talking about danger or about the relative safety of a thing, we need to take probability into consideration. After all, danger does not mean disaster. Danger means potential for disaster, that there is some degree of likelihood that a disaster of some kind will occur. So it follows that we must consider the likelihood of disaster when talking about supposed danger.
Now let’s think about this: On a cool, autumn day, what danger does the world pose to a sleeping child strapped in his carseat, in a locked vehicle?
Am I correct in guessing that the dangers you thought of (if you could think of any at all) are highly unlikely to happen? Especially in a short period of time? The kid is strapped down. In a cool, locked vehicle. It’s actually harder to think of a safer situation for the kid to be in.
And now let’s compare it to the alternative, which is the mother bringing the child into the store with her. Would that be safer? How many children get run over in parking lots every year? I don’t have an exact figure for that, but I’m fairly certain that a parking lot is one of the less safe places a 3-year-old can be. And I guarantee it’s less safe than sitting strapped into the seat of a cool, locked car.
So really, if we’re going to talk about danger – about real, present danger – maybe we should be going after the moms who do bring their kids into the stores with them. They’re the ones putting their children at risk! Of course I’m not actually suggesting that it’s wrong to bring your 3-year-old into a store with you. I’m just pointing out that it’s ridiculous to act like a mom who doesn’t is neglecting to keep her child safe.
And what about that good samaritan who called the police? Wasn’t she just trying to help, even if she was overreacting? It couldn’t hurt to just call, right? That would be true if the police had some practical and reliable way of determining who is a fit parent and who’s not. But they have a lot of work to do (thanks to people calling to report idiotic stuff all the time) and limited information about any given family. So if they have reason (even stupid reason) to suspect that a child isn’t being cared for properly, they may have to act. That can involve all kinds of invasive and costly actions, including removing the child from the home. We like to believe that bad things won’t happen to innocent people. But if you think the kind of scenario we’re talking about can’t turn into a costly and traumatic ordeal for a perfectly fit parent and their child, read this story.
In our culture, where helicopter parenting is the norm, it feels like the “right” thing to do is to bring a child into the store with us no matter what. But as with most cultural norms, those feelings are subjective and pretty arbitrary. It is not, in fact, significantly more dangerous to leave the child in the car in our hypothetical scenario than it is to bring them. As we’ve just seen, it’s actually probably less so.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that anyone out there leave their kids in the car to run errands, or at all. In fact, I’d strongly advise you not to do that. It’s dangerous! But in the absence of other risk factors (like warm weather, for example), the danger I’m talking about is that some careless, ignorant, well-intentioned bystander might report you. That’s not a risk I like to take.