I pulled into a parking spot at the store this morning and happened to look over at the car to my left. In the backseat was a little girl, about 4, strapped into her carseat. I scanned the rest of the car and was jolted when I realized there was no adult in there with her. I decided to stay put, despite my whining baby in the backseat, to make sure nothing happened to the girl and that an adult returned to the car promptly. Her dad came out about two minute later and they drove off together.
I didn’t really have a plan for what I would have done next if the dad hadn’t emerged from the store. I guess I would have started by knocking on the window and asking the girl if she was ok and where her grown up was. I didn’t even think to confront the adult about the situation. I probably would have called the police if too much time had elapsed – a number of people on my Twitter feed suggested I do just that when I tweeted about the situation as it was happening. All I know for sure is that I wasn’t going to let the girl out of my sight until her parent reappeared. It takes a village and I’m a villager, so to speak.
The whole situation made me really, really uncomfortable. Realistically, the girl was probably perfectly safe. It wasn’t hot, she was in her carseat, and her parent was only a few steps away. Judging the situation felt a little like criticizing a parenting choice that was probably harmless. But it’s only probably harmless, not entirely harmless. What if someone broke into the car? What if another car crashed into the car? What if it had been hot? What if any of a million things happened in the five minutes the parent had been in the store? What if, what if, what if?
Now, I’ve left my kids in the car in the past because there are moments when the time I’ll spend out of the car is shorter than the time it would take to unbuckle and rebuckle car seats. I’ll put a shopping cart away after I’ve strapped them in or dash out long enough to toss books in the library return slot. I’ll even run into the house to grab a forgotten item. But I’m never away from the car for more than 60 seconds and I can see it the whole time. Is that better or worse than what the dad at the store did? I don’t know.
It turns out that leaving kids under 8 years old unattended in a car is illegal in Maryland no matter what. So, both that dad and I are technically in violation of the law and are subject to fines or jail time. Now that I know that, I’ll probably rethink even my short dashes across a grocery store parking lot.
What do you all think? Is it ok to leave kids in a car? For how long? Should it be a crime? Or is it a safety issue best left up to parents to decide?
Check SafeKids.org to see what the unattended child laws are for your state.
Photo credit: photo stock
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