I Left My Kids Alone In the Car, And Here's What I Realized

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I finally did it. I left my three children — ages eight, six, and four — strapped into a minivan, at a ruralish post office with gigantic windows. The parking lot was nearly empty. All I had to do was walk in, hand the addressed, sealed, and prepaid package to the clerk, and walk out. I didn’t have to wait. I didn’t have to stand in line. I didn’t have to take my eyes off the freaking parking lot if I didn’t want to.

So I did it. I left my kids in the car.

“Screw it, you three stay here,” I said to the kids. In my state, the only law about kids in cars states that you can’t leave them in a running vehicle. So, I pocketed the keys and picked up my package.

“Uh, are you sure this is okay?” my eight-year-old asked.

“What do you mean?” I said. “Nothing’s going to happen. I’m going to walk in there –” I pointed at the clerk, clearly visible from where he sat “ — hand him the package, and walk out. It’ll take less than thirty seconds. You can count it down. No one will bother you, honey.”

“But what if someone calls the police?” he said nervously.

My stomach dropped. My parenting had worked too well. He’d heard us talking too much, heard me complaining about cases I’d read in the news or knew about firsthand. My son wasn’t afraid of Stranger Danger. He didn’t think an axe murderer would come and attack him in the half a minute I’d be gone. He was afraid some middle-aged woman with a cell phone would come and try to ruin our lives.

“As long as the car is not running, what I am doing is completely legal,” I said. “And it’s common sense. It’s too much of a waste to unbuckle all of you, march you into the post office, hand over a package, march you out, and buckle you all back in.”

I shut the car door, marched in, forked over the package, and walked out. It took twenty seconds. I know because I counted. I left my kids in the car for twenty seconds. Alone.

I wasn’t worried. I was proud: proud to act like a normal parent. Because leaving your kids in the car for twenty seconds, while you can actually, literally see them, and even if you can’t, counts as normal. We can’t base our lives and our laws on hysteria, as Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids and its non-profit arm, Let Grow, told Scary Mommy.

“And it is hysteria,” she said, “to think 30 seconds of being alone in a car is dangerous.”

But leaving my kids in the car is about more than all that buckling and unbuckling. It’s about, as Skenazy says, democracy and community. It’s about trusting people. It’s about telling my kids that we give people the benefit of the doubt. As she says, “If you think your kid is in constant danger and you’re the only one who can save them, you’ve destroyed community.”

When I left my kids, I wasn’t just trusting that no one would come and kidnap them. I was trusting that no one would call the cops, and that if they did, we would all handle it together, as a sane community of people rather than a hysterical mob. That’s a whole heck of a lot of trust, I know. But it’s the type of world I want to live in. It’s not going to happen unless people create it. People like me.

It’s also about freedom. Skenazy talks about how mothers are constantly tethered to their children, and police are called upon to enforce that. What kind of world are we living in, that children are growing up so dependent, so infantilized that they can’t be trusted alone in the car for twenty seconds?

When I was eight, my mother would have told my brother and I not to honk the horn, locked the car doors, and sauntered into the post office, where she would have waited in line, bought stamps, and gossiped with the clerk, all entirely out of our sight. We’d have clambered into the front and pretended to drive to Disney World. We’d have definitely honked at everyone who passed and laughed when they jumped. No one ever bothered us, except to roll their eyes or wave, and this at a time when crime was higher than it is now.

My mother had time alone. We had time alone, without adults, so we could be children. Yes, we pushed buttons. Yes, we messed with the steering wheel. Yes, my mother had the keys so we couldn’t throw the car out of park or do anything actually dangerous. We felt free. We felt trusted. We felt somehow responsible. We felt safe.

My son does not feel safe, but it’s not because he fears kidnappers. He’s afraid of you, your sanctimonious attitude, and your cell phone. He’s afraid of you in the comment section, you who are going to eviscerate me for leaving him alone for 20 freaking seconds. You who will say I don’t deserve to have children if I am not willing to take care of them. You who will say I am a terrible mother, irresponsible mother. You who will break out the what-ifs and the who-knows and the anything-can-happens.

You’re the ones scaring my son. You’re the ones breaking down our community. You’re the reason he doesn’t trust people, the reason he balks at being left alone.

He isn’t scared of the criminals. He’s afraid of your hysteria.

And honestly? So am I. Not because you might call the cops on me. But because you’re creating a world I don’t want to live in, an over-policed world of over-coddled children who can’t be let out of sight. You’re creating legions of exhausted parents, a generation of hoverers raising a generation of the hovered who, we’re seeing now, can’t manage life on their own. This isn’t sustainable. It isn’t practical. It isn’t normal.

So yes, I left my kids in the car. And dammit, I’ll do it again.

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