Like many parents, I recoil in disgust and horror when I hear about parents leaving kids in hot cars. The Eastern US has been in the grips of a big heat wave, and this weekend there was news that there were two separate incidents of kids in Indiana being left in a car for an extended period of time. Since becoming a parent five years ago, any awful tragedy or mistreatment of children gets a big reaction out of me, because I can’t help but think that the kids affected aren’t too different from my own.
Of course the reaction online to these incidents has been vitriolic. People are outraged that parents could be so thoughtless, stupid, and cruel. There is no lack of people who would be willing to do things at least as cruel to the parents of the affected children.
I can’t believe that there would be parents in the world who would willfully harm their young children like that.
In fact, I don’t believe it. I’m willing to give the parents of these kids the benefit of the doubt. Lets assume for a moment that these were responsible parents with good intentions. None of the readers here have any say over what happens to those parents, so I don’t think it would hurt anything to go through this exercise.
For most of our lives up to the point of becoming a parent, we have been responsible for the safety of only one person: ourselves. Saying it takes some getting used to for watching kids is an understatement. Combining those responsibilities with the fact that many parents aren’t exactly working in the optimal conditions for decision making can lead to mistakes being made.
If you have kids, you’ve been through the various mental fogs that accompany those first few years. For the first few years, kids are entirely dependent on their parents. Infants don’t abide by adult circadian rhythms. Toddlers and preschoolers can keep you up all night when they are ill, which is a pretty frequent thing if they go to daycare. At some point or another, after sleepless nights, every parent is in some state of awful fatigue where we’re not really sure how we got from Point A to Point B. Some of us have it better than others (my kids have always been pretty good at sleeping through the night), but we’ve all been there for at least a bit. The point is that an audit of our decision-making at time like that wouldn’t make any of us look good, and there are times in which minor processes for a parent are, in fact, life or death decisions.
My goal isn’t to excuse the mistakes of anyone. I don’t know the situation of any of these parents who have left their kids in cars, and the media reports are cursory at best in their coverage. My point is what can we learn from their mistakes?
A few years back, when my first son was an infant, there was a minor heat wave in which several children died after being left in cars. My take then, as now, is that basic processes need to be made as brainless as possible. We made it a standard procedure to make sure that any infant car seats are not only in the back seat, but the back seat behind the passenger seat. This makes it easy (especially in the infant bucket seats) to see if there is in fact a kid in there or not. I would try to make it a habit to put any items I was carrying with me (briefcase, lunch, etc.) in the back seat, so I would have to go back there whenever I was getting out of the car. If I’m already looking in the backseat, then I know I’d never fail to notice of I had for some reason accidentally left a child in there. By trying to put myself in the shoes of the parents dealing with such awful tragedies, I can admit that it is possible for me to make mistakes, and act to try to make sure I don’t make such a mistake no matter how tired or “spacy” I am.
I remember back to one time that I had taken my oldest son with me some place, and when I was getting him back out of the car, I discovered that I hadn’t buckled him into the car seat properly. If we had been in an accident that morning, I don’t think I could have ever forgiven myself, and surely some parents would have read about it and wanted to give me the chair for being so stupid. The fact is, though, that we are all bone-stupid sometimes. When you hear about a tragedy involved children, it wouldn’t hurt to assume the best intentions of the parents, and think about ways that you could prevent yourself from making a similar mistake.