Moms Talk: When Is it OK to Leave Your Kids in the Car?

What is the right age to leave a child alone in a car, and for how long?

Recently, a Facebook friend of mine was going into the Trader Joe’s by my house, and saw a minivan parked with two children inside. One of the children was young, 6 or 7 by her estimate. The other was an infant in a car seat.

She was alarmed by this, and stayed by the car until the mother came out of the store. She then proceeded to berate the mother for leaving her children in the car. She posted this on Facebook, with some pride.

Does it matter that I haven’t told you how long the mother was inside?

When I read this post, I trembled and waited to see everyone else’s response. Because the truth is, there probably hasn’t been a week in the past six months that I have not left my daughter inside our car while I go into the library to drop off returns and pick up holds. Every single time, I’m terrified of returning to find someone standing outside of my car, ready to berate me. 

And the reaction of most of my friend’s Facebook community proves that I’m right to tremble. There are people waiting with timers in their cars ready to read me the riot act if I take longer than two minutes.

And I just don’t know if they’d be right to do so.

Our community has strong reactions to children being left alone, for good reason. But the truth is that Washington, like most states, does not legislate how old a child must be before they are left alone, at home or in a car. (They do make an exception for stating that a child must be 12 to be left in a car while the parent goes into a bar. Good call.)

This is one of the things left to the judgment of the parent.

In my case, my daughter had been begging for years to be left alone to read while I did this small chore, rather than be unbuckled, coated, shoed, and dragged along to put the books in the slot, grab the books off the shelf, and go back to the car. She loved coming in with me to go spend some time in the children’s section while I browsed, but this weekly drop off and grab was exasperating to her. She especially revolted when it rained.

And for years, I said firmly, “I can’t leave you. It’s not allowed.”

Until one day, probably after reading an article about free range parenting, I looked at my very responsible 8-year-old child. I thought about what she was asking me for. I really looked, and I thought, and I made my call. 

I told her to lock the doors behind me and not to unlock them for anyone but her father or me. I put my cell phone—already set up to dial my husband at the push of a button—in her lap. And I went. I waited outside the car until I heard her click the locks closed, and then I sprinted. I was probably gone 60 heart-pounding seconds.

I returned breathless to find her happily undisturbed, buried in her book. I had to knock on the window to get her attention so that she would unlock the doors.

In a world where everything is not drive through, I’ve spent many parenting minutes sitting in the car pondering how worth it a stop somewhere is. Deciding if a trip to the grocery store was vital enough to risk waking the baby sleeping in the car seat carrier. Wondering how badly I actually had to pee compared to the process of waking, coating, and shoeing my child (Yes, my daughter takes her shoes off in the car. Yes, I’ve told her not to) and then racing through a storm into a place with a bathroom.

These kinds of decisions parents make every day. And if I’ve decided that this regular run into the library is one of those risk assessment choices that I’ve decided on the side of risk, should I be looking over my shoulder the whole time? For other parents instead of for the risk? I just don’t know.

For the record, the mother from my friend's story was gone for 20 minutes, which is far, far too long. And I don’t think the infant should have been left in the car at all.

But man, do I understand where that mother was coming from. And I don’t just mean Trader Joe’s.

bigyaz November 09, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Well then you better not drive on our roads with kids in your car, because the chance of a serious accident is exponentially greater than that of someone snatching your kid from your car.
Don November 09, 2012 at 05:49 PM
North, that's unrealistic. I don't think you have kids. Easy to say but it doesn't fit in with busy hectic lives.
Melissa November 09, 2012 at 07:47 PM
Amen! To both Malia and this comment from Jennifer!
Don November 20, 2012 at 09:18 AM
Chriss, busy bodies like that really get me pissed. I wish I'd been there. They wouldn't forget me.


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