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Moms Talk: When Is it OK to Leave Your Kids in the Car?

What is the right age to leave a child alone in a car, and for how long?

Recently, a Facebook friend of mine was going into the Trader Joe’s by my house, and saw a minivan parked with two children inside. One of the children was young, 6 or 7 by her estimate. The other was an infant in a car seat.

She was alarmed by this, and stayed by the car until the mother came out of the store. She then proceeded to berate the mother for leaving her children in the car. She posted this on Facebook, with some pride.

Does it matter that I haven’t told you how long the mother was inside?

When I read this post, I trembled and waited to see everyone else’s response. Because the truth is, there probably hasn’t been a week in the past six months that I have not left my daughter inside our car while I go into the library to drop off returns and pick up holds. Every single time, I’m terrified of returning to find someone standing outside of my car, ready to berate me. 

And the reaction of most of my friend’s Facebook community proves that I’m right to tremble. There are people waiting with timers in their cars ready to read me the riot act if I take longer than two minutes.

And I just don’t know if they’d be right to do so.

Our community has strong reactions to children being left alone, for good reason. But the truth is that Washington, like most states, does not legislate how old a child must be before they are left alone, at home or in a car. (They do make an exception for stating that a child must be 12 to be left in a car while the parent goes into a bar. Good call.)

This is one of the things left to the judgment of the parent.

In my case, my daughter had been begging for years to be left alone to read while I did this small chore, rather than be unbuckled, coated, shoed, and dragged along to put the books in the slot, grab the books off the shelf, and go back to the car. She loved coming in with me to go spend some time in the children’s section while I browsed, but this weekly drop off and grab was exasperating to her. She especially revolted when it rained.

And for years, I said firmly, “I can’t leave you. It’s not allowed.”

Until one day, probably after reading an article about free range parenting, I looked at my very responsible 8-year-old child. I thought about what she was asking me for. I really looked, and I thought, and I made my call. 

I told her to lock the doors behind me and not to unlock them for anyone but her father or me. I put my cell phone—already set up to dial my husband at the push of a button—in her lap. And I went. I waited outside the car until I heard her click the locks closed, and then I sprinted. I was probably gone 60 heart-pounding seconds.

I returned breathless to find her happily undisturbed, buried in her book. I had to knock on the window to get her attention so that she would unlock the doors.

In a world where everything is not drive through, I’ve spent many parenting minutes sitting in the car pondering how worth it a stop somewhere is. Deciding if a trip to the grocery store was vital enough to risk waking the baby sleeping in the car seat carrier. Wondering how badly I actually had to pee compared to the process of waking, coating, and shoeing my child (Yes, my daughter takes her shoes off in the car. Yes, I’ve told her not to) and then racing through a storm into a place with a bathroom.

These kinds of decisions parents make every day. And if I’ve decided that this regular run into the library is one of those risk assessment choices that I’ve decided on the side of risk, should I be looking over my shoulder the whole time? For other parents instead of for the risk? I just don’t know.

For the record, the mother from my friend's story was gone for 20 minutes, which is far, far too long. And I don’t think the infant should have been left in the car at all.

But man, do I understand where that mother was coming from. And I don’t just mean Trader Joe’s.

Tu-Ha Nguyen November 03, 2012 at 09:31 PM
@ bigyaz: regarding your comment from today at 1:36pm. I agree with you that Don sounds bitter and depressed. @ DON: Hi, I am the person who gave you advice on how best to get out of your Verizon contract, etc. Hope you remember me. Hey Don, I have been reading your exchanges with others on various Patch sites and I gotta say that I would add the word ANGRY to the list above. Don, I am NOT an expert on anything but what I do know is that behind displays of bitterness and anger is a great deal of PAIN. Correct me if I am wrong but this is what I summarized by your many postings. (1) You hate Democrats (2) Your fiscal budget: Money is tight (3) You are against more immigration (4) You hate a good deal of things (5) You do not like any form of authority. Even the most, gentle, courteous and professional "heads up" from Patch Editors about conversation etiquette is met with replies from you that are best described as rude and "come on, make my day" attitudes. To close, my heart goes out to you. It obvious that you do not feel much LOVE from friends and family. Perhaps, you do not have friends or family nearby? You make comments that let others know you don't feel like you belong anywhere. The holidays are coming up. This makes things worse for folks like you who feel like outcasts. When is the last time you had a home cooked meal? Would you like to have tea or coffee with my husband and I? We could meet at Jersey Mike's in Aurora Village, Shoreline.
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 03, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Continued. At Don. Of course, I would need to bring my canine kid who also is my service dog. Let us know either way. Your many comments are cries for help. I can not solve ANY of your problems. My offer is only to buy you a hot beverage without alcohol. That's it. If you are angry with me for my thoughts, I accept that. My words are from my heart with great concern for you. I don't want you to "go postal" before The New Year. Whatever. Take my words however you would like. God bless.
Gail November 03, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Please stop Nguyen. That post is hardly better than Don's. Has nothing to do with this topic. Thanks
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 03, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Dear Gail: We are all connected in some way or another. If we all go with your words, this entire free forum will collapse. That was my humble way of reaching out to Don. Take great care, God Bless.
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 03, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Also, Gail. This not a matter of anyone or any comments being "better" or less than ... If you were to read the entirety of what I wrote then STOP to really think about what I expressed to Don...you may come up with a different conclusion. I have no hope that you will, however, I encourage all who read and comment to take several breaths before responding. Like a famous TV journalist who once said, "Before you get hot under the collar about something, stop, breathe and think. Delay any extreme responses and quick to judge replies." Happy Thanksgiving you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Gail November 03, 2012 at 11:01 PM
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. Abraham Lincoln It was very hard to 'read the entirety' since it became merely more clear you were satisfying a need to attack Don. Please do not pretend it was nothing more than a personal attack at Don. It's that obvious. The one that is "hot under the collar" is you for posting what you did. The comments were totally uncalled for in this conversation. Hardly humble and definitely not nice. God Bless
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 04, 2012 at 01:20 AM
Dear Gail: You can say whatever you say and believe whatever you want to believe. I am NOT here to change your mind. You have already made up your mind about a great deal of things. Right or wrong, you don't know me from boo. You prove that there are many examples of people in this world who chose NOT to see anything besides the surface level in front of them. I disagree with you words. Period. I realize you are only seeing a small bit of our conversation. It is out of context. Don and I have had a long running conversation. Again, your words prove that you don't want to see or hear both sides and the entire story. Shallow. Perhaps, I wasn't good at saying what i wanted to say from the get go but thanks again for showing the mentality that exists out there. God bless again.
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 04, 2012 at 01:53 AM
More for Gail: in my message I also offered to buy Don a non-alcoholic drink with my husband and service dog by my side. What a horrible personal attack that was huh? Offering to break bread and chat over coffee -- that is a horrible attack on Don, poor guy ... Not!
Gail November 04, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Reminds me of a child's response when they argue with an adult. Yup, I don't know you and YOU don't know me. Meaningless attempt to make up an excuse for bad behavior. It's funny/sad to read things from people that reflect exactly who THEY are. For example, I agree "you chose NOT to see anything besides the surface level in front of you". The point is that you are not talking about the topic Nguyen, but going off on a personal tangent. Now to me. What part of your response has to do with leaving kids unattended? NONE, that's what. Remember you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Time for you to learn that lesson. Sad, God Bless
Ann November 04, 2012 at 04:14 AM
It was written about last year by the other mothering writer who owned Tots Spot, but her writing was anti-leaving children. Either way you react to the issue, it's a powderkeg!
Malia Kawaguchi November 04, 2012 at 04:53 AM
Gail - The law in Redmond says that eight years old is eight years old is... legal alone. The municipal code quoted above states that leaving a child younger than 8 is unacceptable without someone older than 12 in the car. 8 alone is, therefore, legal. I'll cut and paste the code again. "10.52.215 Leaving unattended children in parked or standing vehicles. No person, while operating or in charge of a motor vehicle, shall park or wilfully allow such vehicle to stand upon a public street, public way or in a public place open to the public, leaving any child or children under the age of eight years unattended therein. For the purposes of this section, “unattended” means where no responsible person over twelve years of age is physically present in such vehicle and has immediate control over such child or children or the person operating or in charge of such vehicle is not in the immediate vicinity where such child or children can be seen or heard by such person."
Don November 04, 2012 at 05:40 AM
Wow. This place gets ugly. Sorry I started it.
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 04, 2012 at 06:18 AM
Gail: When you post a legit last name and a picture that can be verified, I will continue the conversation. When people hide behind a four letter first name with no picture they have zero credibility. Lots of chat but no courage from a faceless individual with no last name. My conversation is done with you "Gail."
Tu-Ha Nguyen November 04, 2012 at 06:20 AM
Don, no apologies necessary. You and I are just fine. We trade thoughts/jabs about whatever all the time. You didn't start anything. You are a good person with lots going on. I just thought to ask you to think about stuff cause i was really concerned for you. God bless ya buddy. Be well.
Bob MacDonald November 04, 2012 at 03:47 PM
Wear it as a badge of pride, Don. They are attacking you because you are a Republican and your ideas are superior to theirs. I get the same treatment...from the same folks (Hi Tu-Ha!)...as you are getting. They don't want to respond to your ideas...because they really can't...so they attack your form. They may as well be waving a white flag. You won without a fight.
Bob MacDonald November 04, 2012 at 03:51 PM
You're a regular kindness killer, Tu-Ha. You think no one can see past the charade. Like a little kid who puts on a Batman mask and expects that no one will know who he truly is. You're just as bad as the people you attack. Maybe even worse, because you don't say what you really mean.
Bob McCoy November 04, 2012 at 04:49 PM
<trollAlert/>
Gail November 04, 2012 at 05:57 PM
Malia says "The law in Redmond says that eight years old is eight years old is... legal alone." You've got me confused Malia. The law you quoted says "No person .. shall ... leaving any child or children under the age of eight years unattended therein ... no responsible person over twelve years of age is physically present " Was that a typo you made? That says it's not legal, unless attended. I meant to say it more or less as that ordinance though - 'can be seen or heard by such person'. So going to the ATM, for example, would be fine. I'd say anytime you can see your car+kids it's fine. I had a niece with kids that let them play in the car 'unattended' while parked on a hill. Would you let them do that? Sure every kid is different, but this set was bent on destruction. I think one problem might be that 'common sense' training was lost sometime in the past. No means No. One can't let kids climb all over everything and pretend it's ok. So I guess in a way, I'm agreeing with Tony in a specific way.
Gail November 04, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Nguyen, that's a thin retort. You use this over and over and over here when you get caught. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with your behavior. So who is "Don" that you are having the long relationship with? Do you actually know who he is? Here's a secret: 99 percent of posts on the internet are anonymous - for a good reason. Doesn't change the message dear. I'm really concerned about your farewell. That's why I go to the trouble to explain and help discover the meaning of sinning. I will pray for you twice today. God Bless
Bob McCoy November 04, 2012 at 06:31 PM
My ten y.o. brother and I (8 y.o) took off on our Schwinns regularly to see the world. When we were younger than that, we walked. We crossed busy boulevards to hike the foothills near our home. The world was dangerous then (my little sister ran off screaming, when a man offered her candy to get into his car), it's dangerous now. Life consists of assessing risks and returns. When a hillside caught on fire, we rode our bikes to the scene, to help. The firemen assigned us a task of pulling hoses, well away from the fire. We were, in a nutshell, unsupervised children, who learned independence and responsibility early. Tony Bussert mentions those who fail to try new things from fear of failure. That brings to mind two expressions that appeal to me: "A job worth doing, is worth doing poorly," and "Experience is the best teacher, if you can afford the tuition." These apply to parenting as well as other endeavors. While the probability of disaster from leaving a child in a car is small (see the stats at http://www.kidsandcars.org/statistics.html (Amber's alert)) they are non-zero. I would guess, though, if abduction is our concern, that more children are taken from a store, than from a locked car. Thus, a parent trying to keep track of a child and take care of an errand may expose their child to a higher, though still small, risk of abduction. As far as "Moms Talk," take a risk, even if you're not a mom, and join the conversation, though mom might wash your mouth with soap.
Malia Kawaguchi November 04, 2012 at 07:27 PM
Gail - I am... honestly confused by your confusion. Even in the part you quoted, it says a child under the age of eight unattended is illegal, which means a child of eight is legal. No, I would not let your niece's kids be in a car alone. On a hill or not. My daughter is my daughter. There are many 12 year olds I would be MORE concerned to leave her with in a car than by herself. It's true, I'm out of sight when I run into the library, but she has my phone, locks the doors, and reads. That's who she is.
Gail November 04, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Have no idea what your point is Don. If you are trying to tell me I can't tell Nguyen to be honest, that's pretty much the same as you complaining to the Patch (actually much worse). I really don't care who you are. It was a rhetorical statement to Nguyen - obvious to most. But if you want to be prayed over and all that, God Bless you too. Sorry about your struggles that ALL of us have had.
Gail November 04, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Sorry, yes under eight is not eight. I was just not reading carefully. I'm bad.
northernlights November 09, 2012 at 06:25 AM
Who cares what the law does or does not say, dont leave your kids for a second, because it only takes a second for something horrible to happen and how are you going to feel if it happens to you and yours
northernlights November 09, 2012 at 06:30 AM
How could you go on with your life..knowing you failed the life that trusted you not to fail. I couldn't live with that
Laurel Chrystine Sumner November 09, 2012 at 05:35 PM
I'm always amused when the strongest opinions are anonymous.
bigyaz November 09, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Well then you better not drive on our roads with kids in your car, because the chance of a serious accident is exponentially greater than that of someone snatching your kid from your car.
Don November 09, 2012 at 05:49 PM
North, that's unrealistic. I don't think you have kids. Easy to say but it doesn't fit in with busy hectic lives.
Melissa November 09, 2012 at 07:47 PM
Amen! To both Malia and this comment from Jennifer!
Don November 20, 2012 at 09:18 AM
Chriss, busy bodies like that really get me pissed. I wish I'd been there. They wouldn't forget me.

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