Free-Range Kids

Mom Lets Her 3 Kids Wait in Car. FBI Agent Tells Her She Can't.

Why the endangered-kids-in-cars myth just won't die.



My friend Julie Gunlock lives just outside of Washington, D.C. She's a great mom and the author of a book I love, From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back.

She recently found herself fighting back a particularly stubborn misconception. She'd let her kids, ages nine, seven, and five, wait in the car for 15 minutes while she ran into the store to get dinner. She emerged to find an FBI agent flashing his badge and insisting, "m'am, you can't do that" because "kids get snatched all the time."

Julie knew that was untrue. She told him to put away his badge and go find a real crook. Here's her feisty article. And here's her note to me:

Dear Lenore: I thought you'd want to see this article I wrote for Heat Street. As you know, this incident rattled me and I am so thankful that I could contact you (actually, I emailed you before even calling my husband!) for comfort, support and accurate information about my rights and the laws currently on the books.

I'm so grateful to you for creating a website where moms can go for solid information and for creating the Free-Range Kids movement. Without it, I would be feeling quite guilty, and probably questioning my own instincts as a mom. It's nice to know I'm not alone and that there's a movement to push back on the sort of harassment I experienced. Equally gratifying is seeing my children's pride in me. They're thrilled that mom stood up for her rights and didn't back down when the man tried to throw around his authority. That's a valuable lesson for them to see and it's because I knew my rights that I was able to stand up for myself.

Thanks again! — Julie Gunlock

Some people wonder why the topic of kids waiting in the car comes up so often in my writing. After all, it's not like the kids are out playing or delivering newspapers—classic Free-Range activities.

The reason is that the "car wait = death" hysteria is emblematic of our culture's belief that kids can never be unsupervised, even when all the evidence shows that this activity is extremely safe. It's not perfectly safe: perfect safety is an impossible goal. But sitting in the car is safer than being driven in one (the number one way kids die) or being dragged across the parking lot, even though that is what the authorities encourage parents to do.

When both driving and dragging are demonstrably more dangerous than a short, unsupervised car wait, and yet are not subject to societal disapproval (including arrest), it's clear we are dealing with superstition, rather than rationality.

It's hard to fight a deeply held superstition. But if we want to be able to raise our kids the way we see fit, and especially if we want to give them any Free-Range freedoms, we must fight for the right to parent outside the prevailing Cult of Constant Supervision. This cult keeps manifesting itself in shopping center parking lots, which is why I keep writing about it.

Update: Due to an error, this post initially ran under the wrong byline. Lenore Skenazy is the author of this post.

NEXT: Settlements in Tamir Rice, Zachary Hammond Cases Illustrate Elusiveness of Police Accountability

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  1. …perfect safety is an impossible goal.

    With an attitude like that, it is. If I was the government, I would start snatching up kids I see in parked cars just to prove a point.

    1. Operation Kiddie Furious!

  2. Wait…Rico is Lenore now? Is Lenore Rico?

    1. Don’t be ridiculous. He’s simply intercepting her email.

      1. If Milo is the product of a hive-mind, Lenore can be Rico’s drag queen name.

        1. Maybe Lenore is Robby’s Hair.

          1. That would explain the feistiness.

  3. She told him to put away his badge and go find a real crook.

    That’s a cis-woman with balls.

    1. I’m gonna guess this is an embellishment. We all know what happens when we speak to one of the King’s Men in anything other than the most kowtowing manner possible to one of the King’s Men.

      1. Although I would guess an FBI agent might be less likely to over-react like an agitated baboon.

      2. Not necessarily. FBI doesn’t have the authority to enforce state and local laws. Presumably she knew that. Unless he could find a federal statute under which to arrest her, there is nothing he could have done except call the locals. And FBI hates to call locals for backup.

  4. She emerged to find an FBI agent flashing his badge and insisting, “m’am, you can’t do that” because “kids get snatched all the time.”

    “Not when they’re packing heat like my kids, they don’t.”

    1. Well, kids do get snatched all the time. By child protective services.

      1. “Not when they’re packing heat like my kids, they don’t.”

      2. yeh. I don’t leave my kids in the car. Not because I worry about a criminal, but because I worry about the State.

    2. Exactly. My dad taught all of us kids gun use safety when we were 8. He’d probably be imprisoned today.

  5. Well done, Julie.

  6. I missed when the “law against leaving kids in the car” was debated in congress, but then it was probably called “Fluffy’s Law” or some such cutesy name.

    1. With the naming conventions they slap onto stuff, probably the “Safer Kids and Better Communities Act”, or possibly just “Greatest Bill EVER!”

    1. Update: Due to an error, this post initially ran under the wrong byline. Lenore Skenazy is the author of this post

      They admitted to changing it!

    2. Update: Due to an error, this post initially ran under the wrong byline. Lenore Skenazy is the author of this post.

      Her name is an anagram of ye rankles zone. Think about it.

    3. “Lenore” is a poem by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. It began as a different poem, “A Paean”, and was not published as “Lenore” until 1843. The poem discusses proper decorum in the wake of the death of a young woman.

      1. The poem discusses proper decorum in the wake of the death of a young woman.

        Who left her kids in the car?

        1. Yes. The cops shot her when she returned to the car for them while screaming “STOP RESISTING!”

          1. Why would she have been yelling “STOP RESISTING!”

            1. Because those kids were about to take a beating for getting the man all up in her business.

        2. Nevermore.

          1. Damn you.

    4. A lost and radiant maiden,
      Who the angels named Lenore,
      Nameless here, forevermore.

  7. Lenore, you seem to be personally acquainted with a large number of people running afoul of the law in regards to caring for their children. Coincidence? I think not.

    *scratches Lenore off daughter’s emergency call list*

    1. Selection bias.

      When you know a lot of people who do something the powers that be don’t really like, you’ll find yourself knowing a lot of people running afoul of the law.

  8. FACT: you only get snatched if you go hitchhiking alone in Mexico.

    1. FACT: you only get snatch if you go to brothels in Mexico.

    2. FACT: or if you are co-starring in a Liam Neeson movie or a film on Lifetime.

  9. What is with commentary sites declining to support public comments? How am I supposed to enjoy their articles if I can’t get a helping of whiny butthurt underneath?

    1. As sites have realized that the masses have opinions they disagree with, they have decided that they don’t wish the masses to be heard. The cleansing is on-going.

  10. “Okay, let’s see your ID. Ms. ummmmm, Gunlock?”

    *whispers into radio* “I’m gonna need some backup, stat! Bring every weapon you have.”

    1. “The funny thing is, officer, it’s pronounced ‘G-L-O-C-K'”

      “ACTIVE SHOOTER! OFFICER DOWN! Holy shit, guys, I’m bleeding out! Call in SWAT!!!!”

  11. Leaving children alone in a car is unsafe for parents: it often results in confrontations with armed, murderous goons.

    1. They have to get the first shot off to be defined as “murderous”.

  12. Good article, but this seems a bit naive:

    “What’s even more frightening is the idea that law enforcement?ostensibly the very people who should know the law?can get the facts so wrong, and conflate the horrifying cases of parents forgetting their kids are in the car, which sadly often results in their child’s death, with a quick pop into a store with children perfectly capable of opening a car door if needed.”

    1. There are so many laws cops themselves can’t know what’s illegal even if they tried, 2. most of them don’t try because they don’t care, 3. sometimes cops do know the law and purposefully break it on the assumption *you* won’t know the law, and 4. there are like 20 instances of car related heat stroke a year, so it doesn’t ‘often result in death.’

    1. But, no federal laws against that, see above. Surprised you missed that, buddy. Still pining for ESB?

    2. Ignorance of the Law is no defense. Unless you’re a sworn law enforcement officer.

    3. Don’t forget too that the job of law enforcement officers is not to enforce the law. Their job is to force compliance. If someone does something they don’t like, their job is to force the person to obey when they tell the person to stop. Doesn’t matter if the activity in question is legal or illegal. Doesn’t matter a bit. The cop is supposed to use force to make the person obey, and then sort out the legalities of it later. If the cop’s actions are completely and totally illegal, it doesn’t matter. They forced the person to obey. That’s their real job. Any law enforcement that happens in the process is incidental.

      1. Sadly, so much this.

        Its a natural evolution from the fact that all punishments are ultimately for “failure to obey”, and laws exist only to trigger the “obedience” mode of armed agents of the state.

    4. It takes over 3000 hours to become a hairdresser. It takes less than 300 to become a cop.

      1. Perhaps that’s why nobody ever died from a bad hairdo. You can thank government for that.

  13. “m’am, you can’t do that” because “kids get snatched all the time.”

    Perfectly illustrates what lazy pieces of shit LEO’s are: blaming the victim.

  14. When will Lenore tackle the pressing problem of fan death?

  15. I missed the part where a pack of angry citizens chased the G-man off with theeats of tar and feathering. Other than that, good article.

    1. Unfortunately I think it’s far more likely that the mom would be chased off by a pack of angry citizens hell-bent on having CPS come take her kids away.

      1. Sigh. Unfortunately true.

  16. The worldview of many people is shaped by what they see on television. Whenever a kid is snatched, it’s the lead story on local news. If she’s a cute blonde, it cycles over and over on CNN.

    The hundreds of millions of times that kids are left unmolested while unsupervised go unreported.

    Also unreported is the fact that the abductor or molester is usually a relative.

    1. Yes, a significant number of abductors are ‘known’.
      No, this does not imply then imply that strangers do not abduct when the opportunity is available.

      Yes, kids are typically just fine waiting unsupervised.
      No, this does not mean that they are always safe… is situational.

      Bad: local woman left her 18 month old in Walmart parking lot for 45 minutes while getting her nails done…..with car unlocked, in the winter, and running (to keep the heat on).
      Bad: local woman left her 4 year old in unlocked car, windows open, in summer time in the mall parking lot while shopping. she was gone at minimum 20minutes prior to being paged by security, and then didn’t come to the car for another 20 minutes because she was finishing shopping.
      Not Bad: leaving munchkin in car while picking up takeout for a few minutes.

  17. I bet the guy want even FBI. Probably got the badge from a cereal box.

    1. The badge actually said:


  18. She emerged to find an FBI agent a pedophile flashing his badge and insisting, “m’am, you can’t do that” because “kids get snatched all the time.”

    1. Fucking amateurs.

  19. I feel deprived because that Feisty Article had no comments where i was sure to find comments from Other Moms telling her what a bad person she was.

  20. This cult keeps manifesting itself in shopping center parking lots, which is why I keep writing about it.

    Next time I notice a car with kids in it in a parking lot, I’m going to camp out nearby, specifically to ambush any scolds who happen along and decide to stick their snouts in.

    *Person stops, peers in car window at kids*

    DEAN: Get away from there, you perv, or I’m calling the cops!

    Like that.

    1. Pray that the person isn’t a badge without a uniform, because if so you’re in for a serious beating and some false charges (resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, disorderly conduct, and whatever else the guy decides to make up) for calling the perv a perv.

      1. That would wind up as “early retirement” for me.

  21. I’m starting to feel bad for the FBI. With the drug war dying down they are running out of crimes to prosecute. Now they have to incite an hysteria over sex trafficking. Maybe someone can threaten to throw someone in a woodchipper. That will give a couple agents at least a few weeks of paper pushing.

    I should start a charity.

    1. AddictionMyth|4.26.16 @ 3:21PM|#
      “…With the drug war dying down….”

      I missed that, and I do so try to keep up.

  22. Why did the G-man think he had any business flashing his badge? I’m pretty sure there isn’t any federal law which the FBI has jurisdiction to enforce and which prohibits people from letting her kids stay in the car. At least not until Miss It Takes A Village becomes president.

    1. Why flash the badge? Easy


      Telling some random dude to mind his own damn business is easy.
      Flash the badge and now they know that ‘I am the LAW’ so most people get all “Oh I’m so sorry I won’t do it again”

      1. Flashing a badge just tells me he’s an asshole with a badge.

  23. “Update: Due to an error, this post initially ran under the wrong byline. Lenore Skenazy is the author of this post.”

    i don’t know….this seems like an elaborate plot to steal someone’s kids.

  24. I’d love to know what the FBI officer was thinking by flashing his FBI badge. It’s not like he remotely had the power to arrest her for anything like what he was lecturing her about.

    1. But whenever there is a child kidnapping, the FBI is automatically called in. Am I the only one who watches “Criminal Minds” around here?

      1. Kidnapping is a federal crime.

        Running errands, not so much.

    2. Are you serious? Like every law enforcement member, they think they are a privileged class able to bully people “for their own good”

  25. How to file a complaint against an FBI agent…..t-fbi.html

  26. Well Done, Julie.

  27. And puffing the reefer will make you mad!

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