Is it OK to Leave a Preschooler in a Car Unattended?

Why I Left My Preschooler in the Car Unattended
By Patricia-Anne Tom for Circle of Moms, in Washington Post

While you might think the answer should be a resounding, “no,” many Circle of Moms members say the answer is not so cut and dry. Most moms “know” it’s wrong — and in some states even illegal — to leave children in a car unattended, Yet many moms are sympathetic to Treffly Coyne’s story. This mom found herself on trial for charges of child endangerment because she left her toddler alone in the car for a few minutes, less than 10 yards away, as her other child donated money to a Salvation Army collection bucket.

“There are few words for what a bad decision I think the police and the justice system made on this one, to traumatize a mother, her children and the whole family over something like that,” says Circle of Moms member Johnny. “I do not think it is a good idea to leave one’s child in the car for more than a few minutes or to have the car out of your sight. But this case is nothing like when people leave kids in a car to go shopping or play in the casino or something.”

Other moms, however, point out the unexpected risks of leaving a preschooler in an unattended car for even a minute, such as choking, becoming unbuckled and hurting himself in the car, being car jacked or kidnapped, or being hit by another car from behind. Many say they would rather play it safe than face consequences for breaking the law or be forced to live with guilt for the rest of their lives should something unforeseen happen to their child.

“I don’t leave my kids in the car for any reason, ever, period,” says Shana R. “Yes, heat stroke is a legitimate concern, but I’m more concerned about car jackings and abductions. I have three kids, ages 3, 5 and 8. I’m a mom to always err on the side of caution, no matter how inconvenient it may be.”

Others, including a mom named Anna B., believe that Shana’s rule doesn’t take into account individual circumstances that might make breaking the law acceptable. Moms members with multiples, in particular, admit that sometimes it’s easier to leave a child (or two) unattended in a car, as long as he is in view, to accomplish small tasks like paying for gas, or picking up another sibling from a school’s front steps.

“It is a rare occasion that I do not leave at least one of my children in the van … if not all three,” says mom Jodi, who has a nearly three-year-old and twin one-year-olds. She, too, will leave her children unattended when she needs to retrieve and return a grocery cart. And, it is impossible to carry all children into her house at the same time if they fall asleep in the car. So she takes one child into the house at a time while she is parked in her garage with the door closed and her keys in her pocket. “I am not waking up my kids when all three are sound asleep,” she says. “Unless I hire someone to be here with me anytime I might have to leave just to help me with kids in and out of vehicles, someone gets left behind for a minute or less.”

Kerry E. says leaving a preschooler in the car alone might be okay, depending on the child’s age. And Nikki S. feels that when you’re from a small town or safe neighborhood, the risks of leaving your child unattended can be lower. Mom Sharame L. agrees, pointing out that leaving a child in the car unattended for a minute might even be the safest option, such as when it’s sleeting or freezing.

Anna B. notes taking her three children, ages 3 months, 22 months and 3 ½ years, with her through a parking lot is more dangerous than leaving them alone in the car. “The parking lot is hands-down the most dangerous place I take them,” she explains, noting she sometimes leaves them in the car unattended while she returns a shopping cart. “It’s easy to say that it’s always best to take your kids with you. It looks good on paper. It is not always safer,” she says. “Sometimes I think people lay hard, fast rules about things like this because they don’t understand the concept of judgment.”

Even MeMe, who is “very firm” on “always taking her young children with her because you never know what could happen in just a minute or two, acknowledges that moms have to evaluate and mitigate each situation’s individual risks. “Just because one person would not do it the same as another does not mean they are saying the other’s way is wrong … We all love our kids and do our best,” she says.

I personally believe you should not leave your preschooler unattended in the car because you never know what could happen. But, I once left my son unattended in the car after he unexpectedly fell asleep on the way to a play date. The weather was cool, I kept the windows down, he was in sight in the driveway as I sat on the front porch, and I put a baby monitor in the vehicle for added safety. My overstepping the law allowed him to have fun with his friend once he woke up half an hour later. So as a practical matter, it’s all about common sense and situational safety.

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