The other day, I was walking down a busy Oakland street with my children when we spotted a small child alone in a parked car. She was strapped in a carseat. She wasn’t upset. She was, at most, three years-old.
Maybe other people would have kept walking. It’s none of my business. The child wasn’t crying. The weather was warm but not hot. Her parent or caregiver would be right back, right? RIGHT?
But what if they’re not? What if they truly forgot her? Will I read in the news tomorrow about a car getting stolen with a toddler inside or a child dead from heatstroke inside a hot car? It would haunt me to know I could have done something and instead just kept on walking.
But calling the police and potentially upsetting the life of a family who, in all likelihood, was just running a quick errand felt…dramatic. Running errands with small children is a hassle. (Sorry). Somehow quick errands become 30 minute slogs once everyone is schlepped in and out of their carseats. I’ve left my own children alone in the car exactly twice, once to grab a quick coffee at our neighborhood market and the other to pick up dry cleaning. Both times I parked right in front, cracked the windows, and was gone but a few minutes. My children barely noticed my absence, but I was so horribly wracked with fear and guilt I’ve never done it again.
But I wonder now: why did I feel so afraid, so guilty? Was it that I actually thought my children were in danger? The odds of my car being stolen in those few minutes were impossibly tiny. My children’s lives are at greater risk when the car is moving and both of their parents are in it, driving. The weather was not severely hot so there was no danger of heatstroke. Is it possible that what I feared more than anything was getting caught? It is a crime in some states, and this Salon article detailing how these charges can shatter a family would instill fear in any parent.
I think we all recognize that, for better or worse, the expectation of adult supervision over children has shifted dramatically in the United States. Moms these days get arrested for leaving 8 and 9 year-olds home alone for 45 minutes while grabbing takeout. Children used to do so many things alone: walk to school, ride on public transit, play at their neighborhood park. In a recent NPR interview, Ruth Bader Ginsberg fondly recalled her mother dropping her off at a local library while she went to hair appointments. Could you imagine how savagely Twitter would take down a mother busted for doing that now? Some would say these are different, more dangerous times (and others would argue American children have never been safer), but it does make you wonder: if dropping your kid off at the library regularly is how you raise a supreme court justice, perhaps our modern standards are a little out of whack?
But then you read about children dying alone in cars during severe weather, and the decision to cut parents some slack gets a little more difficult. And you have to ask yourself: if you honestly forgot your child in the car, wouldn’t you want someone to possibly save your child’s life by acting?
Which is all a very long way of asking: what would you do? Call the police? Keep on walking? Wait by the car for a few minutes to make sure a parent returns? I decided to wait, and after eight minutes the parent did come back. When I told her why I waited and shared that I was relieved, she rolled her eyes and told me her toddler “asks to be left in the car all the time.” Which, I suppose, is a different conversation for another day.