Friends of my family, who are also our neighbors, often drive with their kids, ages 9 and 7, in the front seat. They’ve easily been doing this for the past three or four years, well before their children were legally allowed to be out of car seats (not to mention that in our state, kids under the age of 13 must be seated in the back).
I wince whenever I see them coming or going with one of their kids in the front seat, whether I can tell they’re just heading a few blocks away downtown, or making the turn out of the driveway that indicates they could be traveling a greater distance. While maybe I should call the police and report them, or even just confront them, I won’t be doing either. I feel pretty strongly that it’s not my place to say anything to them; they are intelligent people who have and still do own booster seats and know how to use them. There is no question they are aware of the law. They just choose not to follow it.
Holly Wagner’s 11-month-old son was killed in 2013 when her then-boyfriend blew through a stop sign with her two kids in the back seat. Her little one was not buckled around the waist (only at the chest) and was ejected from the car, ultimately dying as a result. Holly had his car seat rear-facing until three weeks before the crash, even posting a photo of him sleeping in the car on Facebook while he was front-facing. She told Yahoo News that she wishes one of her friends who had seen the picture and known better had told her that he should have been rear-facing for at least another whole year (although there’s no telling if that would have saved him considering he wasn’t buckled in properly).
Car seat safety isn’t something that is necessarily intuitive. I consider myself well read; I learned everything I could before giving birth and yet it was still news to me when the nurse in the hospital after my first baby was born said the carrying handle for the car seat needs to be collapsed once it’s snapped into the base. The police officer who helped us install the car seat base was the one who told us to ensure the chest strap was always at nipple height; it wasn’t something anyone else told me or I would have otherwise known. It was only after my first child was three years old and my second child was born that the law changed and babies had to be rear-facing until their second birthday. This, despite my younger daughter’s long legs often being cramped or uncomfortable (better to break a leg, though, then sustain more permanent damage to her head or spine) for pretty much her entire second year of life because she couldn’t dangle them in front of her).
But while it’s easy to criticize people we don’t know for improperly strapping their children into cars (the Yahoo comments on Wagner’s story are nearing the 4,000 mark and climbing), for many people, like me, it’s harder to comment to those whom you actually know about what they’re doing wrong. Sure, when you’re a new parent, many people like to tell you what you could be doing better. Once your kids are a bit older, though, people often stop chiming in (to your face, anyway). Instead, they assume you already know what you’re doing, even if they see you doing it wrong.
An estimated 73 percent of parents are using car seats incorrectly, the CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide told Yahoo. That includes using expired car seats, those that have been in accidents, not having them secured snugly enough or positioned in the correct spot. I know I’m not alone when I see friends post pictures of their babies on Facebook and I think, “The strap should be at nipple height,” or “the car seat carrying handle should be all the way down.” It can be uncomfortable, though, to confront family, friends, acquaintances, or even strangers who you’re pretty sure know what to do, even if they aren’t. Chances are they’ll be fine, you probably tell yourself. Except when they’re not, like in the case of Wagner’s younger son.
Maybe Wagner’s friends should have spoken up or she shouldn’t have been with a man who didn’t care enough to take the time to strap in her kids perfectly or she should have read the car seat manual from cover to cover if she really loved her kids. However, when we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that we all don’t make the safest parenting choices all the time, either. Whether it’s not ensuring our kids wear helmets every time they’re on the scooter or letting them eat popcorn when they’re still young enough to risk choking, glancing at a text message while carpooling, or leaving a preschooler in the bath just for a second while we run to grab the phone — everyone makes mistakes. We’re aware of some of them and maybe not others.
Some of our choices are more grey than black and white on the scale of right to wrong. There is no question, of course, that choosing not to point out the irresponsible, reckless, or ignorant moves on the part of people we know is a calculated risk. I’d want to know if I were unknowingly doing something that could kill, but other risks I take with eyes wide open could ruffle my feathers if a friend pointed them out.
Is it really our job to tell friends what they’re doing wrong? Or do we weigh the uncomfortableness against the chances that anything bad will really happen and err towards the latter? It’s easy to grandstand and armchair quarterback, but when it comes down to it, just how many of those thorny talks with our buddies are we really willing to have?
Image courtesy of ThinkStock