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.