For Chrissakes, Don't Leave a Kid Under 6 Alone in a Car

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?

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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.

Brooks also admits that she regrets her choice, but does not think she did anything wrong. I can't agree with her. There is a reason why the car scenario is illegal, why is it is far too risky a place to leave a kid alone — riskier than others, riskier than most. Most of us don't die every day in our cars, but we still wear our seat belts in case.

Weingarten's piece details the case of Lyn Balfour, a 37-year-old army reservist who left her 9-month-old in the car when she went to work after being up all night of caring for him and also babysitting for a friend. Just like the 50-degree day Brooks considered less risky, so was the day Balfour forgot her child:

The high temperature that day was only in the 60s, but the biometrics and thermodynamics of babies and cars combine mercilessly: Young children have lousy thermostats, and heat builds quickly in a closed vehicle in the sun. The temperature in Balfour's car that day topped 110 degrees.

Brooks car windows were cracked, she was only five minutes. Her kid was fine. Again, I understand the impulse. But I also understand the outrage. She dealt with two years of court appearances and ended up with 100 hours of community service. And I consider that lucky, because who is to say what 50 degrees and cracked windows will buy you, time-wise, should you be held up in a store for reasons you can't foresee. Says an AAA spokesperson on the subject:

There are just too many potentially deadly hazards to risk it," Mack adds. "In just 10 minutes, the temperature inside a car can spike 19 degrees, and it can go up 29 degrees in 20 minutes. So on a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a car can climb to 97 degrees in just 10 minutes. And rising temperatures aren't the only hazard: children can accidentally disengage the emergency brake, or get caught in automatic windows, or keys can become locked in the car trapping children inside, or any number of other dangerous scenarios."

Perhaps nothing details better the ambiguities of those little choices we make every day than this. Everything is a risk with a young child: Holding a conversation with a friend while a child swims in a pool just out of your view, dropping a child off every day to a preschool to rely on the care of others for a full eight hours. Feel free to debate the relative risk of these acts, or the larger cultural context in which we fret about these problems —helicopter parents, free-range parenting, what our parents used to get away with when we were kids and how we all turned out fine. Kim Brooks is not a bad mother. That's not even the point. The point is that regardless of the ways we can survive just fine without following any of the rules, this is one we should all continue to observe.

Because even if you think Kim Brooks did nothing wrong, either, what now? Change the law? Tell everyone it's totally OK to leave their kid in the car for five minutes, if it's only 50 degrees, and you crack the windows and you're super totally double pinky swear sure you'll be done in five minutes, because just trust you, you got this? Should anyone take a closer look and ask what her intentions were? How should that be determined? Should cops carry a thermostat? What might we do instead? I think the answer is to still avoid such risk at all cost. Because, believe me, it's hard enough worrying about the risks you can't see. Here is one you can.

Image via Shutterstock.