If you see something, sometimes you should keep your mouth shut

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Every couple of weeks I get an e-mail from someone time-stamped 2 or 3 am, because the sender can’t sleep. Here’s one that came three weeks ago, shortened a bit:

“Dear Lenore: I am a special police officer in Washington, DC. I wake up 4 am to work 6 am–6 pm and get home by 8 pm. No family at all. No support. Never been arrested or anything. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t date. Don’t party. I literally have no life trying to be the best parent I can. My son is 2 and had fallen asleep after our second grocery store looking for rice milk. It was 7:50 pm and 65 degrees.”

Can you guess what happened next? She let him snooze in the car a few minutes while she got the special milk. She emerged to find “multiple police cars” swarming.


Someone had called 911 about a child alone in a car. As if that is automatically neglect. The police grilled the mom for an hour, “All looking at me like the worst mother ever. I can potentially lose my career over this. How then will I support us?”

Until she finds out whether she is let off with a warning or is found guilty of a crime, this mom doesn’t know what lies ahead. Perhaps nothing but a bad memory, but perhaps the life of a single mom out of a job, forced to live someplace cheap and dangerous. How will that make her son “safer”?

It won’t.

And here’s a note I got today. It should sound familiar:

“Dear Lenore: I’m a father of two boys in a Midwestern suburb. I took my kids to school, one of them threw up on the way. So I took him home and cleaned him up. I’m a dad that works at home. I’d sent two files for FedEx to print so I went to pick them up. My son said, ‘I feel better, dad. Can I stay in the car?’ ”

Reader, what would you do? I’d do what this papa did:

“I parked in front of the FedEx, which is completely made of glass. He’s in plain sight. It’s 63 degrees, the windows are open, the doors are locked.”

Again, someone called 911. Long story short:

“Child protective services made a ruling and I will be marked as a ‘child abuser’ for five years. I’m a 40-year-old man, without a single mark on my record. But because of this, I won’t be able to coach my kids’ teams any more, or go on field trips with them. What do I do?”

Right now, there’s not much any parent can do other than stop calling 911 when you see a child in a car and it isn’t boiling hot and the car is in view of a retail establishment.

A truly good Samaritan does not set a case in motion against a family. A good Samaritan stands by the car a few minutes to make sure the parents are coming right back, or goes into the store to see if they can locate them.

How dare I say that? Here’s how:

• Kids do not die the instant they are in an unmoving car. Of the 30–40 children who die in cars each year, reports, the overwhelming majority were forgotten there or climbed into a car unbeknownst to the parent and couldn’t get out. They were not just waiting out a brief errand.

• Believe it or not, more kids die from getting hit by cars in parking lots than in parked cars. So let’s stop pretending, “Take the kid out, he’s automatically safe. Leave him in, he’s automatically in danger.” Plenty of parents rue the day they took their kids out of the car instead of letting them wait.

• Yes, cars get hot in the summer. So don’t get mad at parents who leave the air conditioning on while they run in to get a gallon of milk.

• If you see a child in someplace like the IBM parking lot, that kid is in danger. Clearly she’s been forgotten by a parent who went into work. Calling for emergency help there makes sense. Calling in front of the grocery does not.

• Remember we are all in this together. Let’s support parents like that valiant mom, above. And let’s assume that most parents who make a seat-of- the-pants decision are not evil or abusive, but just trying to do what makes sense in the moment, like that dad, above.

• Since forgetting kids is the real danger, the best prevention is to put your phone or wallet in the backseat with your child. That way, even if you’re distracted, you will open the door to get your wallet and see your precious child.

Lenore Skenazy president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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