Is it ever OK to leave your child alone in the car?

In this month's debate, chosen by our readers, two parents discuss whether it's ever OK to leave your kids in the car.
Illustration: Jessica Rae Gordon

Illustration: Jessica Rae Gordon

“Yes, sometimes it’s OK to leave your kids alone in the car.”
Alysha MacDonald, mother of two and a reader in Hamilton, Ont.

I know this is a hugely controversial topic, but before you accuse me of being a bad parent, let me just say that, yes, I have indeed heard the horror stories of children left behind in cars, whether deliberately or by accident, who then suffered heatstroke or hypothermia. But I’m going to be honest and argue that there’s a big difference between leaving your child in a car in the mall parking lot for two hours on a hot summer day or freezing winter day (something I would never, ever, in a million years do), and letting your child stay cozy and comfortable while you quickly run into the convenience store to buy milk, keeping your eye on the car the whole time. I’ll confess: Under certain circumstances, I think it’s reasonable to leave your kids semi-supervised for a very short time in a vehicle. (Why do I feel like I’m going to have my kids hauled away?!)

I think the number of parents who agree with me—and sometimes do it, too—is higher than anyone admits. Haven’t you ever left your kids buckled in their car seats while you lugged the groceries into the house? I have friends who, if the weather is mild, leave their sleeping infant in the minivan in the driveway until he wakes up because, well, you don’t wake a sleeping baby. I should hope that parents making this conscious decision have assessed the situation and deemed it safe; I certainly do when I leave my five-year-old and 17-month-old in the car the odd time I actually pick up the dry cleaning.

When I was growing up in the ’80s, kids were left in vehicles all the time. Of course, times have changed. Back then, my siblings and I didn’t have to use car seats, or even wear seat belts, whereas nowadays kids are cinched in with five-point harnesses. But while safety standards have rightly evolved, I wonder if we’ve become a bit too paranoid. If the weather is not an issue, you’re not going far and you’re going to return in just a minute, the chances of any harm coming to your children are miniscule. ava's rules
Reminder: Never leave a child in a hot car

I refuse to raise my kids in an unhealthy culture of fear, constantly imagining worst-case scenarios. We shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for making a very careful, if practical, decision about the safety of our children.

“No, it’s never OK to leave your kids alone in the car.”
Kristy Baranoski, mother of two and a reader in Waterdown, Ont.

I would never, under any circumstances, leave my kids alone in the car. Every morning when I drop my son off at school, I see a woman who does it. But to me, there is no excuse.

I never wanted to be “that mom”—the one who hovers over her child’s every move to ensure that he is always safe and doing the right thing. I want to teach my kids the independence they need to succeed. But in reality, I’ve turned out to be that mom. Accidents happen, no matter how many precautions you think you have taken. And even if you have incredibly trustworthy, obedient children, you can’t always trust the world around them. So every morning I bundle up my baby and bring him into school alongside my three-year-old. It’s not easy, and definitely not my preferred choice if I had one—but I don’t.

This means I disrupt my youngest’s nap schedule, either waking him up early or delaying his nap until after the school run. You know what that can mean—crabby baby. Then, to add to his delight, I expose him to the rain, snow and wind, depending on the season. At 11 months he weighs more than 22 pounds, which doesn’t help matters. And on top of this, my three-year-old is usually having some sort of meltdown at the same time. The best part is, I get to experience this all over again when we return a few hours later for pickup.

The easier option, obviously, is to leave my youngest in the car during this process. I understand the appeal: no heavy lifting, a happier baby and a less-frazzled mommy. But what if something happened? I would always blame myself for taking the lazy route. I could never live with that guilt.

We all know the seriousness of leaving children in cars for extended periods during extreme temperatures. Sometimes criminal charges are even laid. But what about all the other times: that quick trip into the grocery store, that fast cup of coffee, that urgent errand for a friend? None of these reasons are justifiable, no matter how tempting or important. I just can’t shake the feeling of responsibility. My children deserve my protection, and the only way I can do that thoroughly is to keep them within sight, always.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Is leaving your kids alone in the car ever OK?” on p. 98.

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