Late last year, my father-in-law, who is a lawyer, was telling me about a controversial case he had just taken on involving a mum and her 3-year-old son. They were out running errands, and it was pouring rain, so she decided to leave him in the back seat of the car while she ran into a shop very quickly to pick up a few things. Her son was contently munching on a McDonald’s Happy Meal, so why interrupt him? Plus, she thought she’d be in and out of the store in minutes.
While the mum was in the store, another woman pulled up and parked next to her car. She saw the 3-year-old boy alone in the back seat and she immediately dialled the police. When the mum returned with her purchases a few minutes later, the police were there to greet her, along with that other woman.
My father-in-law was defending the mum because, as he said, she could end up getting up to six months in prison for the offense and that just seemed like a punishment that did not fit the so-called crime in question. Six months in prison. Take a minute to wrap your head around that. Whether she went away for a few nights, one, or six months, that’s still time in which she would have to find childcare. She couldn’t work if she had a job. Six months when she couldn’t see her son unless he was visiting her in jail. Can you imagine not seeing your kid for that long?
So even though I admit that when he first told me whose side he was on, I was surprised — mostly because I could just imagine how easily that story might have ended with the 3-year-old choking on a Macca’s French fry in the back seat — prison time feels exceptionally extreme here.
No, I don’t think I would feel comfortable leaving my kids in the car while I went into a store, but I want to think that in the moment, were I that “other woman”, I would not have called the cops right away.
I hope that I would have taken the time to investigate, look around, knock on the window, and make sure the little guy was okay. I hope I would have hung around, rain and all, until his guardian returned. If enough time passed, I could call a friend and say, “Hey, meet me here so I can run in and find this kid’s parent”. I hope I would have gone into the store to ask about the car with the kid in it.
And yes, at some point I would have to call the police if no one showed up. But even then, I would really hope I wouldn’t judge that mum. I would want to have a conversation with her and make sure she was alright.
We all make mistakes. We are parents, not magicians. We are not perfect. We all have moments of gut reflex judgment when we must attempt to make the best decision that we can for ourselves and the little humans we care for. Parenting, over the long haul, is pretty much an unending series of these split second choices.
I’ve been at the playground many times when I’ve lost my kid momentarily only to have her resurface a few minutes later thanks to a caring person nearby. It happens. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad mum (well, if you think I am you can let me have it in the comments section below).
In the end, my father in law’s client got handed a hefty fine and community service hours.
I am not condoning what his client did, but I am also not condoning the barrage of situations in which parents’ misgivings and shortcomings have been swiftly photographed, caught on tape, and reported to the authorities. I’m not talking about kids who are being abused or left to fend for themselves in horrific situations. I’m talking about kids walking home alone from school or being left to play for a few minutes alone in a local playground.
Here is another story for you. My mum is really scared of snakes. She pretty much convulses at the sight of them. She can’t even see photos of them in books. When I was a kid and we were at the zoo together, I wanted to go in the reptile house. So, she did what seemed totally normal to us at the time and she asked another family if they wouldn’t mind dragging me along as they walked through the reptile house. She would be waiting for us on the other end, just outside the door. I went along with the nice family and looked at all those creepy-cool snakes and just as Mum promised, there she was on the other end when we were done.
Have we become so much more paranoid, so much more judgmental — and so much less helpful — that we’ve completely forgotten the whole “It Takes a Village” thing?
I suppose as many authors and researchers will opine, we don’t really live in villages anymore. Even so, we still so desperately need that village as parents and just general citizens on planet earth. So let’s make one anyway no matter what parking lot, playground or zoo we’re in.