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.