Safety, risk, and leaving children unattended

Earlier this week, Salon published a personal essay by Kim Brooks entitled ”The day I left my son in the car”. Almost immediately, I had friends sharing the article with me on Facebook.

The description read, “I made a split-second decision to run into the store. I had no idea it would consume the next years of my life.” When I first read that, I assumed the article would be another scary story about how one small decision as a parent can leave your child injured or worse.

Nope. Brooks left her 4-year-old son in the car while she ran into buy headphones and when she returned a few minutes later her son was perfectly fine. The reason that decision changed her life was because a bystander filmed her leaving her son in the car and then turned her into the police. As a result, she spent the next two years in court and had to do 100 hours of community service and take parenting classes.

First, let me be clear. I have left my children in the car. I don’t know if it qualifies as unattended because my rule is I have to see the van the entire time, but I’ve done it. (I don’t do it anymore because Griffin can now get out of his seat and a child in a car seat is a very different thing than a child loose in the vehicle.)  In fact, I’d be lying if I said I haven't done it a few times when I can’t see the van.

Not only have I done it but I refuse to make excuses about why I did it and the reason is simple. I don’t think I did anything wrong and I don’t think Brooks did anything wrong either.

In trying to decide for herself if she did anything “wrong,” Brooks decides to seek out Lenore Skenazy – the infamous Free Range mom who let her 9-year-old ride the New York City Subway unattended. Skenazy’s quote is my favorite part of Brooks entire essay.

Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

This goes to the heart of not only Brooks’ situation but also my post on why I hate public playgrounds. Let me be as clear as I can. I do not believe that my children can not be out of my sight for a single second.


No one – and I mean NO ONE – cares more about those children and their safety then I do. The idea that because I don’t do what other people have defined as “safe” that I don’t care about their safety INFURIATES me.

First and foremost, “safe” is a societal construct. It is a subjective idea based on the amount of risk involved in a behavior and what we as a society define as too much risk.  Drinking and driving is considered unsafe because there is a large amount of risk involved with that behavior. However, the presence of ANY risk at all does not define a behavior as unsafe. As Skenazy points out, the riskiest behavior Brooks engages in statistically is driving her child to the store – not leaving him in the car. It is far more likely that she would be involved in a traffic accident than something would happen to her child while he was in the car unattended.

The idea that how much risk is too much is an objective truth out there for anyone to see is ludicrous. As Brooks points out, previous generations of parents engaged in behavior that is now considered “unsafe” from stomach sleeping to seat belts and no one would dare assert that those parents cares less about their children’s safety than parents today.

Now, an increase in knowledge and information has exposed more risk involved with some of these behaviors of which previous generations weren’t aware. As we know better we do better and that is a good thing. But we’re not just talking about our parents who didn’t know any better. Safety is not only defined differently across generations but across the globe.

Parents in Norway leave their infants unattended to nap outside in sub-zero temperatures because they believe the cold air is good for them. In Japan, first graders commute to school in groups unattended. Across Europe, parents “park” their children outside restaurants and shops while they go inside to run errands or eat a peaceful meal. Do these parents love their children less than American parents? I don't think so. 

So, the idea that the decisions you make are “unsafe” is ridiculous because how you and I define safety could be completely different. What is an unacceptable amount of risk to you might be tolerable for me. Should we as a society step-in and protect children whose parents exhibit a reckless disregard for their child’s safety? Of course, I just think we have to be VERY careful about what type of behavior we define as showing such a reckless disregard.

Truthfully, it is the decision to film Brooks and turn her in that I find abhorrent.

What it says to me is that the person filming Brooks believed they cared more for the safety of her son than she did, which is not only self-righteous but also incredibly short-sighted. On the most basic level, being involved in our legal system is expensive, time-consuming, and incredibly stressful. What if Brooks didn’t have help with her legal bills? What if she didn’t have a good lawyer? What if she had gone to jail?

Would her child be “safer” without her there at all?

It also speaks to a complete and total lack of empathy. Instead of deciding Brooks was a bad mother in need of police intervention, what if this stranger had merely stood guard to reduce any perceived risks and went on their merry way? Instead of deciding that Brooks was the enemy, what if this person had decided that Brooks was just as invested in the safety of her son as they were?

I have often advocated for more “judgment” of parenting decisions. I think we are all better off when we approach child-rearing as a community endeavor. When other parents feel free to share lessons learned, I think children and other parents benefit. If this person had a personal experience with leaving a child unattended, then why not share it?

 In fact, if you totally disagree with me and had to learn the hard way that leaving a child in a car unattended is riskier than I think, please share your story with me.

I am not saying I am the only one who knows what is safe and what isn’t. I’m just saying at least give me the benefit of the doubt that I care deeply about the safety of my child and deserve a chance to learn.  

Kim Brooks deserved that chance. We all do.

What do you think? Was Kim Brooks way out of line or did the person who turned her in cross the line?

We're having a great discussion on Facebook!

Post Note: I do want to point out something a good friend of mine pointed out which is how quickly a car can overheat. So, even if you come home and the baby is asleep and you think "I'll just put some things away.." the baby could quickly overheat in a hot car. If it is even the slightest bit hot, better safe than sorry. Read more here: You'd Never Forget Your Child Right.