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.”


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

A Mom Worries: Am I Bad? Friends, Family Say “YES!”

Hi Readers — Here’s a dilemma almost every “good” parent will face at some point. Does it take just one, normal, harried parenting decision with ZERO consequences to make others find us BAD? Sometimes it seems the parenting path is narrow indeed.

Dear Lenore: I am currently reading your book, am only about halfway, but I have to write and tell you my story.
Even now, in relating this, I fear your judgment of my decisions. A part of me is thinking that you will read this and say “I’m all for Free-Range, but that was just plain dangerous of her to do!” This is what my friends and family have done.

What did I do? I left my kids in the car. My 5- and 2- and two-year-old girls. For, like 10 or 15 minutes. And I almost got the police called on me for it. Here’s hat happened:

I came home from work and the babysitter told me my dog was bleeding. Somehow he had obtained a large gash in his head–one that clearly needed stitches. He actually bit me in pain when I probed it and this dog has never bitten me in 12 years. The babysitter had worked a full, long day so, although she offered to stay with the kids, I sent her home and took the kids along with me to the vet. My husband, by the way, was out of town.

The vet is in a small retirement town (read: full of old people and extremely low crime rate) 30  minutes away from my own small town. I got the kids into the office,set them down in the waiting area by the fish tank (ooh, look!) and went back out to get the dog. So far so good. Except that the 2-year-old had fallen asleep in the car on the way there and was none to happy to find herself at a vet’s office, fishes or no. So she started scream-crying. And continued to do so to everyone’s dismay and discomfort throughout the visit. The vet affirmed the need for stitches and asked me to leave the dog there for an hour. Fine. Meantime, I took the girls to McDonalds.

When I went back, it was five minutes to closing time for the vet. I had already given them my credit card and signed for the charges. All I needed to do was get the dog and any medicine. The girls had already shown that they did not tolerate the vet’s office well. They were happily drawing in their car seats. The temp was a pleasant 68 degrees. Did I mention this was on a side street from main street in a very small retirement town? Not wishing to handle screaming children and a dog that has just come out of anesthesia with stitches and a cone over his head, I cracked the windows and left the girls in the car.

As I was waiting inside for them to bring the dog out, I poked my head out the door every two or three minutes to check on the kids. My inquiries were starting to annoy my 5-year-old. “We’re fine!” she said. Finally, the vet was ready to give me instructions. I was in the examining room for all of five or six minutes.

As I was half-dragging my dog out the door, I noticed a well-dressed man in a black Audi parked perpendicular to my car. He was talking on his cell phone. When he looked up and saw me, he slammed the cell phone shut and sped away. I checked on the girls, who were still happily drawing in their car seats, I put the dog in the car, and we went home.

Later, as I was relaying the story to my husband,  I said “I think that guy might have been calling the police on me!” His response was not, as I expected “Wow, what a lousy situation. That must have been hard.” His response was “Well, I would have done the same thing!” He meant he would have called the police, too.

So I told my mom about it. Her response: “Well, he should have called the police on you. That was dangerous of you to do!”

So I told a friend about how no one had any sympathy for me and didn’t that stink and you know what she said? “Of course you know that man was probably a kidnapper.” And proceeded to lecture me about how I had learned my lesson and would never do that again.

Despite all of that, I still think I would have done the same thing given the same situation. I don’t think I am a bad mom at all. It was 68 degrees out. It is a small town. It was five in the afternoon. They were without my watchful eye on them for no longer than 5 or 6 minutes. They were okay!

Anyway, that’s one of my stories. I keep thinking of more as I read your book. Thank you for writing it, for standing up for reasonableness in parenting. And for helping me to realize I am not a bad mom for what I did.

That’s exactly right: This women is not a bad mom, she is a mom, period. Everyone who has kids or works with them finds some point in the day less than optimal and that is NORMAL. If children needed absolutely perfect, doting, hands-on care every second of every day, there would not be a human species, because that is impossible for any parent to provide. So here’s to a very responsible lady and a movement that refuses to castigate her for living life on the fly, as we all must do. Good  luck to her, her family and, of course, her dog! — Lenore