Parents need the freedom to make their own judgment calls

Chain Handcuffs

Chain Handcuffs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It began with my sister’s Facebook status: at the Steak & Shake where they were eating, a man was being arrested after leaving his baby sleeping in the car while the family, including grandparents, came inside to eat. I only had the sketchiest of details, so I tried hard not to get too worked up. I held my peace.

Last Friday, as we pulled into the field where we were meeting my parents for lunch, I realized Michael had fallen asleep. I knew if I pulled the car seat out he’d wake up. It was about 70 degrees outside, so I opened both sliding doors on the van and let the breeze blow through over him while we set up the picnic.

Seeing Michael in the car, my dad brought up the Steak & Shake incident. It turns out he saw the whole thing. The family had left the baby, who like Michael was around or under six months old (i.e. very distractable and hard to nap), in the car with the windows open. They were constantly turning their heads to keep an eye on things. An employee told my dad the family comes in every week, and when the baby was absent that day the manager asked them about it. And then promptly called the police. By the time it was over, the discussion was whether all the kids would be taken away.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Dad said. “I don’t think the family was right to leave the baby in the car. But the manager could have handled it much better. He could have gone to the family and said, ‘If you don’t bring the baby in, I will call the police.'”

My reaction to this whole scenario is gut-deep and powerful. But first, I need to be clear: I think the family’s judgment call was bad. If your child really needs a nap and can’t get it in a restaurant, don’t go to the restaurant. You’re the grownup; you have to place your children’s needs ahead of your desires. You can’t have everything. If you really think you have to have it all, go someplace like Culver’s where you can eat outside next to the vehicle.

Nonetheless, this whole story frightens me far more than any overstated danger of abduction, or of my child falling down stairs or getting into the cleaning supplies. Why?

Maybe it’s because I’m a fiction writer, but I can think of several realistic back stories that make these parents’ choice understandable. And nobody else but the parent knows that back story. Nobody else can make that judgment call. Parenting is hard enough without complete strangers calling the cops on you.

No, our judgment calls will not always be right. Every parent–every one–routinely makes choices s/he regrets. Here’s one of my big ones. Does that mean I should lose my children? What about the daily judgment calls that are mine to make as a parent? Should DFS swoop down on me because when my son turned five, I started letting him play with friends down the street without an adult outside? Because I occasionally let a baby sleep on my bed, when other situations aren’t available? Because we use a seat with a 3-point harness instead of a 5?

Every child, and every situation, is unique. You cannot make one-size-fits-all judgments, because they don’t allow for the specific circumstances of a given situation. Yes, there is a time and place when society must step in, but from my limited vantage point in this story, all society did was scar a family, frighten the children and tie the hands of parents, who will never again feel that they have the authority to parent their children.

A bad deal all the way around.

14 thoughts on “Parents need the freedom to make their own judgment calls

  1. Ciska

    It’s creepy because it’s clear that this family did not abuse the child. Yes, leaving a child to sleep in the car is dangerous. Yes, the child could die. Yes, it would be much safer and more responsible to take the child out. Yes, they should have taken the child out. But they didn’t abuse the child.
    A normal reaction by the police would be to give them a fine or a stern warning. Maybe force them to follow a parenting class or send CPS over for a visit. But arresting the man? That’s pretty crazy. I hope they didn’t take the child away. I hear they do that very, very easily in the US.

    • That’s what I thought. I know those on the other side of the argument would say it’s society’s job to take a child out of a situation where that child could die. But I think what you’re saying, and what my dad suggested, are far more reasonable. I guarantee that most people, confronted thusly, would never, EVER leave their kid in the car again–and the aim of protecting the child would be accomplished without breaking up a family.

      • Allison

        I’m sorry, but I’m very confused. How was this in any way a situation in which the child could die?

      • Car heating up, I would assume.

        Once, when I was waiting outside a school to pick up a sitter, I crawled in the back to nurse a baby and let the other two play up front. Soon along came a police officer making sure the kids weren’t unsupervised.

      • Allison

        The windows were open, no mention that it was a hot day, and the family was keeping an eye on him from the restaurant. I get that this may not be the best choice ever, but do we really need to even think that the outcome would be death, in this circumstance? Worst-first thinking.

      • Well, my dad did say their car was hot when they got back out–but I admit my reaction was the same as yours. “Hot” does not necessarily mean “hot enough to cause death.”

  2. Beth

    It appears that they were within view of the car while in the restaurant. And if the child were, against all odds, going to die at the exact moment he was sleeping in the car, how could the parents have prevented that even if they were RIGHT NEXT TO HIM?

  3. Wow is all I can say. I guess it’s poor judgment…but seriously…some of this stuff really gets under my skin. I don’t really know much of what else to say because I feel like parents make decisions about this stuff all the time and what they do one day may not be what they do the next. Perhaps the family’s power was out or the water wasn’t working (this happened to us last summer!) and they had to go out for the day, including meals, and the poor baby hadn’t had a nap because of all the upheaval, so they were trying to be compassionate and help the poor baby get a nap? Yes, I see there are tons of back stories that could cause them to make the decision they did. Or maybe they were just being thoughtless, too.

    It would be nice if we could live in a world where people assume positive intent, but unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. *sigh*

  4. I agree with your dad. Yes the parents made a dumb judgement call. But if they go to this restaurant weekly and the manager “knows” them enough to ask where the baby was, he could have told them why it was a bad judgement and to bring the baby in; then if the parents didn’t, then call the police.

  5. I agree with you and with what your dad said. The children were more traumatized by their father getting arrested than by anything else. They are all in my prayers.

  6. It’s funny that you mention letting your 5-year-old play outside without an adult…. because when my eldest was five, we were living in a quiet cul-de-sac where the ONLY traffic belonged to our neighbors. She had two girlfriends, sisters who were six and eight, living next door to us. I allowed her to visit them (without me), and their mother gave them permission them to play outside in the yard between our houses.

    We kept our eyes on them periodically; I had large living room windows, but I also was cleaning and puttering around the house.

    Next thing I knew, a social worker was knocking on my back door, with my daughter in tow. She claims to have been “in the area”… but I assume she was either visiting another house, or someone called her.

    She had seen the children playing outside in the yard, without an adult physically outside watching. She spoke with me and the other mother, warning us both about abductions etc…. My daughter had also kicked off her shoes and was playing in the grass barefoot (something we all do, including me!)… but the CPS worker didn’t approve of it. At all.

    And then she said, “There will be a follow-up visit, just to ensure this is an isolated case (of neglect)”.

    That “follow up visit” included a home inspection, a phone-call to my daughter’s school, where she was interviewed by the principal (at five!) about my habits and modes of discipline, a call to her doctor, and they also asked my ex-husband (her father) to provide an assessment of my parenting skills.

    Their investigation turned up nothing harmful, and I received an official letter saying no charges would be filed,

    So our lives went on, but it was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever faced as a parent. I’m willing to bring it up because I know other parents might not realize how easily a simple play-date can get out of control.

    It was a nightmare for her friends’ family and mine. I felt like a criminal for allowing my kid to play outside… and, unfortunately, it made me very paranoid.
    Since that time, none of the kids have been allowed outside (even in our fenced backyard) without my husband or I physically present with them. I’ll take them to the park, but I’m afraid to let my now nearly-ten-year-old daughter ride her bike unchaperoned with friends….
    In our new neighborhood, the neighbors’ children run freely, but I keep mine on a leash (metaphorically!) because I’ve been scarred by that experience.

    • Oh my good Lord above! Tara! That is every parent’s nightmare!

      The worst thing about this whole scenario is the unnecessary fear it has caused you to live in, and the fear your children are almost certainly doomed to learn from it! I am so sorry!

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