In Salon, Kim Brooks writes about a time when she left her four-year-old son in her car for five minutes while she ran an errand, and ended up in legal trouble after a bystander recorded the incident and contacted the police.
I grew up in the ’80s, and my parents left my siblings and me in the car all the time as they went about their daily business. Brooks recalls having a similar childhood. The difference between then and now could simply be this: We know better.
My friends and I sometimes play this game, the did-our-parents-really-let-us-do-that game. We recall bike ramps, model rockets, videotaping ourselves setting toys on fire. Many remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours without adult supervision, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds, latchkey afternoons, monkey bars installed over slabs of concrete. My husband recalls forts built in the trunk of the station wagon on long road trips. I remember standing up in the back of my father’s LeBaron convertible while he cruised around the neighborhood, or spending an hour lying low on the seat of our station wagon, feet against the window, daydreaming or reading in crowded parking lots while my mother got groceries or ran other boring errands. One friend tells me how, from 7-Elevens, to Kroger, to various banks, schools and offices, he was left alone in the front passenger seat of a convertible Mustang for a good portion of his childhood, primarily because he was shy and wanted to not have to meet new people. For people of our generation, living a suburban childhood, the car was central to our lives, not simply a mode of transportation but in many ways, an extension of our home.
We all knew, of course, that cars were dangerous. Moving cars. Every few years there would be a terrible accident. In the fourth grade, a local mother and her three children were killed on their way to school. A few years later, three teenagers were maimed and paralyzed by a head-on collision with a tree behind our neighbor’s house. But these horror stories never penetrated the inside of our own family car, which seemed infinitely safe, cozy even.
In the months of fear and shame that followed my being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, I continuously analyzed my own mind-set that day, trying to understand how I did something that both a bystander and a police officer considered criminally dangerous, and the best I could come up with was the theory that I’d been lulled by nostalgia into a false sense of security. So many of my childhood memories involved unsupervised time in cars in parking lots just like the one where I’d left my son. I wondered in the days after it happened if being back home, out of the city, had given me a sort of momentary amnesia. I’d forgotten that more than 25 years had passed since those unsupervised childhood hours. And a lot could change in 25 years, I thought. People were always saying how the world was a more dangerous place than it had been when I was growing up. I had no reason not to believe them. I felt guilty and ashamed. I felt I’d put my child at risk for my own momentary convenience. I knew I wasn’t a terrible mother, but I’d done something terrible, dangerous, and now I’d suffer the consequences, go to court, pay legal fees, live with a criminal record. This was how I thought about what had taken place.