Yay! Another Car Story — But Much Happier!

Hi Readers — When you get right down to it, a lot of Free-Range Kids ends up being a plea for more community. More helping each other, more trusting each other, even more hanging out with each other. And here is a story of just that: A brief glimpse of how nice it is when we create community, instead of accusation.

Dear Free-Range Kids: My 8-month-old son hates riding in the car, generally, but he loves visiting Grandma, who lives 3.5 hours away. So it’s a very long trip home. Late in the evening, we pulled into a convenience store to pick up caffeine for the ride– just as he dropped off to sleep. In front of the store was a local police officer.

I got out of the car, sized up the lines of sight, and then asked the officer, “Is it legal in this state for me to leave my son asleep in the car while I run in to get something? I can see him from the window, and I hate to wake him up.”

The officer hesitated and then said, “Go ahead in, I’ll be here and I’ll keep an eye on him.”

I said, “Thank you. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and he just fell asleep. You know how it is, once you wake them up…”

The officer joined in “you never get them back to sleep.”

“Yeah.”

I ran in, bought my tea, and ran out again. Thanked the officer, and we were off.

That’s it. End of story. Beginning of new era? — Lenore

Kids Aren’t In Danger Every Time They Wait in the Car!

Hi Readers! Yes, here is another “I left my kid in the car for a sec” story. Why? Because I am astounded to find commenters even here on Free-Range Kids berating the parents who make this sane, safe choice when circumstances call for it. These parents are not leaving their children in active volcanos. They are leaving their kids in the equivalent of a playpen while they run an errand. It is time to decriminalize this behavior and time to realize, as some commenters have written: not every moment of parenting has to be OPTIMAL or PERFECT. If that’s what childred required, our species would not exist! Here’s the letter:

Hi Lenore, I was inspired to share my story after reading the story about the mom who left her kids in the car for a few minutes at the vet’s, only to have everyone condemn her for doing so.  Only in my case, the police actually were involved, sort of:

Early last year just as I was arriving at my 3-year-old’s preschool to pick him up, the sky quickly turned black as a severe thunderstorm blew in.  I had my 4-year-old with me and he absolutely refused to get out of the car, despite my pleading.  He climbed into the cargo hold in the back of the van to escape me, and when I opened the back of the van to pull him out that way he scrambled back into the passenger area when I got around back.  After a couple of rounds of this with me out in the rain, I told him OK, I’m going to run inside very quickly and get your brother, I’ll be right back.
I closed up the van and locked the doors (it was about 60 degrees —  Houston in February) and I ran full speed inside (no umbrella).  I was parked in front of the main entrance, in full view of everyone congregating under covered walkways and the main entrance portico.  The preschool is a cluster of red-brick buildings connected by covered walkways, each of the buildings with multiple French doors along each wall.  Point is: visibility is high throughout.  You can see the cars from the classroom and usually your child would be ready to go by the time you reach the classroom door after signing them out, since the teachers can see you arrive.
Anyway, I ran inside and said I’m really in a hurry because my other son is in the car and I need to get my child fast.  The director manning the sign-out said very accusingly and loudly “YOU LEFT A CHILD ALONE IN THE CAR?!”  That’s when I noticed the uniformed, off-duty police officer who was picking up his child behind me.  I quickly explained YES, he is almost 5 and I tried to get him out but he is too frightened to leave the car in this storm and legally I think I have five minutes to keep thim there (where I got this idea I don’t know). Then I literally ran to get my other son out of his class.  As usual he was ready at the door so I snatched him up and and ran back to the main entrance out front to put his rain coat on under the covered portico where everyone was gathered because of the weather.  My van is in plain sight 10, 15 feet away from me.  One, two minutes have passed with my son in the car alone?
The police officer comes outside after me and angrily informs me that there is no such thing as a 5-minute grace period and he could arrest me right then and there if he wanted to.  When I protest, he LOUDLY tells me NOT to tell him the law, that HE knows the law, I don’t, and yes he very well could arrest me. Parents and kids are huddled all around, witnessing this ugly exchange.
Fortunately, the officer has his own child with him and doesn’t arrest me (gee, a mom with two kids in thunderstorm), but I was humiliated and agitated.  When I got into the van my son was calmly waiting for us buckled in his seat.  He actually said, “Wow, you were fast!”  He had seen me running.
My husband is an attorney and according to the Texas penal code it is a misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of 7 alone in the car for LONGER THAN 5 MINUTES.  So I was in fact correct in my assumption, and the policeman who upbraided me publicly was completely wrong to do so.  And where did I even get the notion of five minutes in my head before actually looking it up?
Turns out the school has the pertinent section of the Texas penal code posted in gigantic font on the wall next to the sign in/out sheets! My subconscious mind picked it up, I suppose.
I’m sorry to say there were more unpleasant exchanges after I pointed this out to the director the next day.  Her reaction was to remove the penal code notice from the wall and tell me the school has a stricter policy of neverallowing a child to remain in the car for any length of time, and that since I had not abided by the school’s policy she would seek to have us removed from the school.
When I pointed out that I had just walked past a sleeping child in a car on my way in, she said “Well, your problem is that you came in and admitted it.  It is in the handbook and you are violating our policy which exists to ensure the best interests and safety of our children.”
Huh?  A sort of don’t ask, don’t tell policy, I guess.  Well, it was not and never was in the handbook and fortunately the school’s board did not take her position.
The police officer?  When I saw him next I tried to tell him about the penal code as written but he refused to hear me, shaking his head and walking away from me repeatedly saying nope, nope, nope, there is no 5 minute rule and I CAN arrest you.
In the end I’m infuriated by the public declaration that I’m a bad parent because I would do such a thing.  I’m a PhD Toxicologist with a better-than-average understanding of risk.  How far are we going to go with the paranoia that pervades our society that today you cannot, ever, leave a child unattended for the briefest of moments, even in a non-running, parked, locked vehicle with keys removed on level ground in cool conditions by the front door of a school in full view of other parents, even when it is legal and arguably safer to do so?
I’m certainly not advocating that children be left in vehicles willy-nilly, but there are situations in which you reasonably can and perhaps even should.  And, seeing a mom who is clearly torn between two simultaneous, conflicting needs couldn’t a school administrator or police officer (!) have offered some assistance rather than passing judgment and dispensing threats? Isn’t that even more outrageous?

Well, that’s the letter, folks. And sez me: Yes. ‘Tis better to offer assistance  than to castigate parents for being human and not even in the wrong! This letter made me feel almost as mad as the writer was. THAT’S why it’s here. Sharing is cathartic! — Lenore