Kids These Days

Back Off, Tiger Moms: The Kids Are Alright

The nanny state is no longer a figure of speech.

By 7.24.14

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The news has been filled with their stories—children just seven or nine or eleven years old, on their own, faced with the impossible, braving death under a hot sun, with nothing but their wits to tell them when to roll down the window.

You thought I was talking about the child migrants? No, I’m referring to our own chubby doltlings, who apparently aren’t up to playing in the park by themselves or even capable of sitting quietly in a car without spontaneously expiring, much less handle a 1,400-mile journey from Guatemala unaccompanied.

So far this month, a mother in Connecticut has been cited with a misdemeanor for leaving her eleven-year-old daughter in the car while she went in a store, a South Carolina mother was jailed for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park alone for hours at a time, and a New York woman was given a summons for leaving her seven-year-old son in the car. There are plenty more.

Nothing happened to any of the children, of course, because the danger from which the state is presuming to protect them is almost entirely imaginary, unlike the danger faced by the child migrants, which is real and very much the fault of Congress, who unanimously approved the 2008 law that is attracting them. The point of my comparison isn’t simply to remind us how petty our suburban worries are compared with real problems. It’s not to scold Congress, although I’d tell them the same I thing I tell my kids when they’re screwing around with a door: either open it or close it, but if you keep that up, somebody’s going to get hurt.

The nanny state is no longer a figure of speech. The state is arrogating for itself authority that belongs to the family. It’s doing it, as ever, for the children, in total ignorance of the facts. And this is all going to end quite badly.

Let’s be clear: leaving a small child alone in a car on a hot day, or even a warm day, is a terrible idea. But kids mature enough to roll down the window or open the door are in no danger. Yet that’s not the message the activists are sending, and it’s not the message I see flashing on freeway signs as I drive around Houston. It’s not the message in news accounts of heroic passersby smashing in car windows to rescue sweaty children—those accounts often forget to mention the age or the temperature, as though these things were irrelevant. That’s because the message from the activists is, as ever, absolutist. “Never leave a child alone in a car, not even for a minute,” says Kate Carr, president of Safe Kids Worldwide.

The idea that grade-school kids are dying in hot cars while their parents rush into the store is a myth, plain and simple. It’s easy to prove that it’s a myth because the activists have compiled records of all 623 children who have died of hyperthermia inside a vehicle in the United States since 1998. They’ve got case-by-case records dating back ten years, yet I couldn’t find one case of a child older than four who had died because he or she was forgotten in the car. When older children die in cars, there’s another explanation: most locked themselves in the car or the trunk while playing around at home; a few had severe autism, cerebral palsy, or Down’s syndrome. (There was a double murder, as well.)

While activists like Janette Fennel, president of KidsAndCars.org, will say “we’ve had little kids die when it's fifty-two out, because with all the glass, the car acts like a greenhouse,” her claim is grossly misleading. The temperatures tend to range from the upper eighties into the hundreds. The deaths at lower temperatures—high seventies, low eighties—are almost all infants left in the car all day.

There is a simple explanation for the great majority of the deaths: harried or absent-minded parents forget about small children in the backseat, and leave them there for hours after arriving at work or at home. According to a study by San Francisco State University, from “1990-1992, before airbags became popular, there were only 11 known deaths of children from heatstroke. In the most recent three-year period of 2011-2013, when almost all young children are now placed in back seats instead of front seats, there have been at least 109 known fatalities from heatstroke.”

Two years ago, a young mother named Kim Brooks was running a quick errand with her four-year-old son. They were out of state, visiting her parents and needed to replace some broken earphones before their flight home so that her son would be occupied. When she got to the store, her son started to throw a tantrum. She wrote about her decision at Salon.com:

I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.

Some buttinski recorded her son in the backseat and called the police, and when Brooks got back home, she found out she was facing criminal charges in another state, in a case that would consume the next two years of her life. She thought about fighting the charges, but her lawyer advised her against it: “This is going to be handled in juvenile court, and the juvenile courts are notorious for erring on the side of protecting the child.”

The lawyer was right. Juvenile courts do not follow the standards of criminal courts; if you get stuck in one, a social worker is going to be determining your child’s fate. Some are well-meaning. Some will turn every trivial interaction into evidence of your unfitness as a parent. Here’s some of the “proof” of parental unfitness offered by a particularly malevolent social worker in one case I covered:

  • The mother fed her six-year-old son a tuna fish sandwich during a bowling outing, and tuna got on the ball return.
  • Her toilet water was blue.
  • She ordered him an IHOP International Breakfast meal rather than something from the Kids Menu.
  • At an arcade, on a mid-week afternoon, she allowed her son to use the men's room by himself, while she and the social worker waited by the door.

Contrary to popular belief, child protective service agencies are not in the business of stopping child abuse: they are parent-graders. More than three-quarters of the cases CPS agencies choose to get involved in fall under the vague category of “neglect,” not physical or sexual abuse. What they call neglect, others would call poverty—except, that is, when what they call neglect is indistinguishable from the sort of parenting that was common just twenty years ago and allowed children some independence.

I walked to kindergarten by myself. I watched my little brothers after school when I was ten years old. I rode my bike all over town as a kid, and so did all my friends. Times are no more dangerous now; in fact, crime in this country is at a historic low. Now any one of the things I was allowed to do then might turn into a criminal case, even the destruction of a family.

Kidnappings at the hands of strangers are vanishingly rare, but there is still a danger you’ll lose your kids if you leave them in the car while you dash into the store. That danger is that somebody might try to help.

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About the Author

Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org.