I'm Scared To Leave My Kids Alone In The Car For Just A Few Minutes

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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I’ll admit it, on penalty of being called an irresponsible mother, a monster, and a criminal.

I’ll be told I don’t deserve my children but that I do deserve to have them kidnapped and that I’m setting them up for some serious stranger danger.

Someone will threaten to call social services. Someone else will be amazed no one yet has called social services.

People will assume I’m lazy. People will tell me I should be afraid or that I shouldn’t have had kids at all.

Still though, I sometimes leave my kids alone in the car.

Let me qualify that: I have three sons, ages 6, 5, and 3. Only the older two can unstrap themselves. They are left in a locked minivan, ignition off and keys out of reach, on days less than 70 degrees — and never for more than three minutes at a time. Most often they are left when I have to pay for gas in cash, when I have to pick up a prescription, and when I need to run in and drop something off (like when I’m at my husband’s school, and I need to leave his lunch at the front desk).

I never go shopping with them in the car, and I always make sure the doors are locked and the keys are in my hand.

And yet, every single time, I feel the terror of the situations I described above. I do not want to feel that judgment. But I also refuse to give in to the hysteria.

When I was a kid, my mom left us in the car all the time. She’d ask us if we wanted to go into the grocery store with her or if we wanted to stay in the car. “Stay in the car!” we’d yell, because staying in the car was totally amazing. My 15-months-younger sister and I would wait until our mom left, then unstrap ourselves and crawl into the front seats. One of us would sit behind the steering wheel. “Where do you want to go?” we’d ask the other, and we’d pretend to drive to Disney World, yanking the wheel back and forth as far as it would go. We’d look for passersby, wait until they got close, then honk the horn loud and long so they jumped. They’d yell at us. We’d laugh.

If it was a hot day, my mom just left the windows down. It was in the mid- to late-1980s, at the height of stranger danger. But to the best of my knowledge, she never worried about leaving us — with open windows — for 10 minutes. Why would she? The parking lots were safe, and if they weren’t, well, we knew how to scream, and people would come to help us.

It might sound callous to put it so bluntly, but there it is. She trusted people to help us if we needed it.

I don’t trust anyone. But it’s for different reasons than people say I shouldn’t. They say I should worry about kidnappers and molesters and murderers. But according to the Brennan Center for Justice, violent crime has plummeted 51% since 1991. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the last time crime was this low was in 1963. Since 1991, the U.S. murder rate has dropped by half. The University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center shows that rape against children is down 43%, and physical assault is down 33%.

So kids today are safer than I was back in those halcyon days of the 1980s, in the middle of the crack-cocaine epidemic.

What I worry about are the people seeing my kids alone in the car. I worry about them hurting not my kids but our family — by calling the police. I live in fear of the good Samaritan.

It’s happened to other people. They leave their kid in the car for a few minutes, and some nosy passersby take it upon themselves to report the parents to the police, despite what state laws may or may not be in place. Only 19 states actually have laws prohibiting children from being left alone in a car. Despite that, Mother Jones is full of stories about parents arrested for leaving kids in cars, including one father who left a child in a CVS parking lot for several minutes. He was arrested on the charge of endangering the welfare of a child.

It’s legal — or rather not illegal — in my state to leave a kid alone in the car. But we have child endangerment statutes, and those have been used to arrest parents under the pretense of ignoring the threat of kidnapping. Which is ridiculous. According to Free-Range Kids, only 115 children per year (in 1999, the last year we have stats for) are abducted by strangers. “Murders of children by abductors,” says the site, which compiles crime statistics against children, “constitute less than one half of 1% of all murders in America.”

The sanity doesn’t matter. As so many sites claim, including the Brennan Foundation, public perception of crime is up. We helicopter-parent our children under the assumption that we’re keeping them safe. Helicoptering means keeping them in view at all times, and public perception says it’s the only responsible way to parent. Leaving your kids in the car is the ultimate in anti-helicoptering.

But I refuse to bow to public pressure. I will not let bullying strangers make me afraid. I know what the risks are: infinitesimal. I know what the advantages are: not unstrapping three boys, marching them somewhere, dealing with business quickly, marching them out, and strapping them back in.

Any user of modern car seats will sympathize with me. Any normal parent will too.

Despite my fear of well-meaning, scolding strangers, I’ll keep leaving my kids in the car. It’s safe. It’s sane. And frankly, it’s the easier way to deal with micro-errands. Nothing’s going to happen in three minutes — except maybe a Baby Boomer with a cell phone.

I don’t worry about my kids. I worry about myself.

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