I'm not here to judge Kim Brooks, a mother of two who made the choice to leave her 4-year-old son in a car for five minutes while she purchased headphones in the midst of a frenzied effort to get to the airport in time. The kid was fine, but Brooks wasn't — a parking lot bystander recorded her leaving the child in the car and called police. But the takeaway is still the same: Don't leave a kid under 6 alone in a car. Do not leave a kid under 6 alone in a car. Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it.
I sympathize with Kim Brooks. In her moving essay at Salon, she details the thinking behind a split second decision to let her 4-year-old keep playing his iPad in the car while she dashed into a store to buy headphones for him to use on the plane. She had a 1-year old back at home with her parents whom she'd been visiting. She had no time to make it to the airport for a few-hours flight back home she was pulling solo.
She seems to me to be a caring, intelligent person and mother who made the call that made sense for her and it all worked out. Alternately, if you want reasons to call bullshit on her choices for one, believe me, they are there: She let her son go with her to the store because he wanted to, when she could have said no and insisted he stay back with his grandparents. Once at the store, he insisted on staying in the car to play on his iPad, and again, she could've said no and insisted he come inside with her. Or why not just buy headphones at the airport where they sell one million varieties?
But she didn't. Instead, she assessed the risk of letting him stay in the car if she controlled the environment:
I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I've been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I'd never done before. I left him. I told him I'd be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.
When I read that passage, I got really anxious, not because I've ever left my kid in a car, but because I have read the Pulitzer-winning 2009 piece in the Washington Post from the excellent writer Gene Weingarten called "Fatal Distraction." It is such a singular, standout piece of writing because it details with unsettling accuracy what can happen to kids when parents leave them in the car by accident. They bake to death:
"Death by hyperthermia" is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just... forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.
It used to happen rarely, Weingarten explains, but that changed in the '90s after the discovery that passenger-side front airbags were fatal to children, so kids were moved to the back. Out of sight, out of mind — an adage that only became even more true when baby seats were turned to face the rear for maximum safety.
What makes Weingarten's piece so absorbing and unforgettable is that he shows that, contrary to typical media depictions of grossly negligent parents, such accidents are not the handiwork of bad parents, but rather, frazzled ones:
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Anyone can do it. Anyone can forget. No matter how watchful you are, you can forget. And those who did, their lives were wrecked forever by incalculable suffering. If you want to make sure that you never leave your own kid in a car by accident, read these two paragraphs:
Each instance has its own macabre signature. One father had parked his car next to the grounds of a county fair; as he discovered his son's body, a calliope tootled merrily beside him. Another man, wanting to end things quickly, tried to wrestle a gun from a police officer at the scene. Several people — including Mary Parks of Blacksburg — have driven from their workplace to the day-care center to pick up the child they'd thought they'd dropped off, never noticing the corpse in the back seat.
Then there is the Chattanooga, Tenn., business executive who must live with this: His motion-detector car alarm went off, three separate times, out there in the broiling sun. But when he looked out, he couldn't see anyone tampering with the car. So he remotely deactivated the alarm and went calmly back to work.
Whether the parents are charged with a crime or not in these cases comes down to the judge. According to Weingarten, in 40 percent of the cases it's viewed as a terrible accident and no charges are brought. In 60 percent, a felony. In most of the situations, as far as the grieving parents are concerned, that distinction is pointless: There is no greater punishment than having lost their child.
But unlike those parents, Kim Brooks didn't forget her child. She made a deliberate choice to leave her kid in the car for a few minutes, and I understand the impulse. I can't count how many times we have rearranged the simplest things to our great irritation simply to avoid having to stop the car, unbuckle our child, take her in somewhere for five seconds only to do it all over again. This is why drive-thrus are the greatest invention ever.
And I have nothing but sympathy for Shanesha Taylor, the homeless woman who was arrested for leaving her two kids in a car with cracked windows while she attended a job interview. She had far fewer options than Brooks, no one to leave her kids with, no one to ask to watch them for even five minutes, no money to pay someone, no options. And yes, I think such things should be considered in a more consistent way than they are now. Because it's worth noting that Taylor had no such luxury of coming off as a "a typical, overprotective, over-anxious, neurotic, independence-stifling, middle-class parent" as Brooks describes herself, words that act as code for, give me the benefit of the doubt.