I’ve read a lot of the stories, and you probably have too. They exist on both sides of the extreme: the parents who kill their children through blatant and forgetful neglect and the people who call the cops at the slightest sign of an absent parent. As the weather warms up, you can expect that during a slow news cycle you will see articles about kids who die of hyperthermia after being left in their car seats by their parents. There will be self-righteous social media posts about how no one deserving of a child could actually forget said child, along with tips about how to avoid forgetting one’s child. Right now, however, the media has decided to feed us stories about vigilante parenting “heroes” who call the cops any time they see a child unattended, in any setting.
Now, I know these vigilantes believe they are doing the right thing in reporting parents. But the problem, as it so often is in our society, is that they are not taking any time to investigate or discuss the issue with the parents. And in fact, by calling the cops and child protective services, they are actually harming children who are at real risk of harm.
How are they harming them? By taking resources away from cases when children are actually being neglected and harmed. Every hour a CPS worker spends on case management for a parent who chose to trust her child’s ability to play unsupervised on a playground is an hour that same worker cannot spend on a parent who beats her child unconscious every month.
So how can a person do the right thing? After all, it takes a village to raise a child, and minding our own business isn’t the answer. I believe it requires a willingness to invest in other people and a willingness to not be the center of attention.
If I see a mom struggling with multiple kids, I’ll offer to watch those kids so she can, say, run to the bathroom, or chase down the runaway toddler. If I see one kid hogging a swing on the playground, I’ll tell her to take turns. If I see a child playing alone, if I have to leave I may check on him to see if he’s OK. But if he says his parents know where he is and he can get home safely, I’ll walk away. On the other hand, if he falls and gets hurt, I’ll step in and help him get whatever care he needs. If I’m in a parking lot on a hot day and I see a child in a car seat, I’ll wait by the car, and if the child looks like she’s in danger, I’m going to use my survival hammer to break the window and call 911. If it’s not a hot day, I’ll probably just loiter near the car until the parent returns and drives off.
The point is that we need to involve ourselves to the point of asking questions and making offers. We can’t just stand there and film something we find objectionable and then call the cops – that’s toxic. Instead, we need to ask questions, offer help, speak up. We need to understand that other parents are different, other kids are different, and discipline is not abuse just because it’s different.
So, if you are truly concerned about the problem of children dying in car seats, then I suggest you patrol local office parking lots. (And this is a very important and tragic problem, which warrants concern). But those children don’t die in the parking lot of grocery stores – they die in the parking lots of the parent’s place of work. And if you are truly concerned about kids playing alone, then go to a neighborhood where you see unsupervised kids and offer to supervise the playground after school. If you just want to catch a parent making a mistake so you can play hero, then by all means, film kids left in cars for less than 10 minutes and call the cops. But realize that you have just become a menace to all the kids who actually need the protection of the system.