Kids left in car??
July 27, 2015 6:37 AM   Subscribe

My partners kids (two-8 year old twin girls) came home last night after spending a weekend at their other home with their other parent. They were telling us about their weekend and told us that they were left in the car twice (Walmart & Target) while their mom shopped. They said the first time seemed like an hour & the second time they were scared so hid where people passing by could not see them. They said she left the doors locked, air conditioner on, car running, and that they were told not to open the door for any reason. I feel really uncomfortable with this for so many different reasons!! So my question is: Is there any way leaving kids in the car is ok? My feeling is 'absolutely not'!! and my partner feels the same. I'm new to this (no kids of my own) so I'm trying to determine if my really really uncomfortable feelings about this are in any way an overreaction. Thanks all!!
posted by lullu73 to Human Relations (65 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For better or worse your partner needs to manage this with the ex.
That being said, some 8 year olds are capable of this. Some are not. Two 8 year olds might be.
I really doubt that they were in the car for an hour. Kids exaggerate. And when I was that age I would sometimes freak myself out and hid from "kidnappers" in the car like that. I also once locked my mom's keys in the car while waiting.

We don't know your partner and the ex but I would generally approach this as "hey the kids mentioned they got really scared waiting in the car and hid. Maybe they're not ready to wait in the car alone yet? Just a thought."
posted by k8t at 6:41 AM on July 27, 2015 [30 favorites]

I think the car running is pretty dangerous all on its own. I mean, kids fool around with things all the time, right? Especially if they're bored. Knock the car into gear and you've got a real problem.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:41 AM on July 27, 2015 [23 favorites]

It's against the law in some states. It's a terrible idea in any state. I'm a fairly free-range parent but leaving two eight year olds in a running car seems like textbook negligence to me.

I agree that your partner needs to be the one to manage it, though.
posted by xeney at 6:43 AM on July 27, 2015 [19 favorites]

as well as the easy-to-imagine risk to children in the car, there is the slower, harder to visualize, long-term damage to children who have to live with a worsened relationship between their parents. i would be very careful here.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:47 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Holy fuck. No its not OK. Not justification for this. She wants time with the kids take them in. No you're not over reacting. And as mentioned it's quite illegal in many places. And kids may exaggerate time lenght sure, but not fear. Partner needs to tackle this at full speed.
posted by chasles at 6:49 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just a quick FYI: Yes, I'm definitely not going to get involved in any way with the ex or this discussion with ex. I'm more questioning if my uneasy/uncomfortable feelings are an overreaction. My head went immediately to the possibly dangerous situations that could occur (knocking gear out of place, etc)...I'm very new to parenting, so I don't have a good gauge with these things, thanks!!
posted by lullu73 at 6:50 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there any way leaving kids in the car is ok? My feeling is 'absolutely not'!! and my partner feels the same.

Definitely not an acceptable level of risk to me - there's so many accidents just waiting to happen, particularly with the engine running.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:54 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

No, not OK. If I were your SO I would contact either Child Protective Services or the court that is dealing with custody issues. NOT OK..
posted by HuronBob at 6:55 AM on July 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

The closed windows and the car left running are the things worrying me more than two eight-year-olds being left in the car. Admittedly, it was a different time, but my mom used to leave us in the car all the time while she ran in to a store to get something. It was never for a real long time, though.

Leaving the car running is simply indefensible. It's simply too easy for one of the kids to be fooling around and get the car in-gear.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:56 AM on July 27, 2015 [11 favorites]

My parents left us in the car for things like this all the time growing up, probably starting when I was 8 or 9 (meaning my brother was 5 or 6). My brother and I both made it to adulthood without getting murdered or kidnapped even once. We were absolutely more of a threat to each other (fighting in a small space) than we were in danger from any external source.

It's probably not the safest thing to do, sure, but it's hardly call CPS and never let the kids see their parent again territory. A simple "the girls were frightened, this isn't safe" discussion is really all that needs to happen.
posted by phunniemee at 6:56 AM on July 27, 2015 [72 favorites]

Best answer: The actual danger involved is probably pretty low. Let's look at what could happen:

Someone might break into the car to steal it or harm the kids. Extremely unlikely.

The car might stop running and the kids might start to overheat. Not too likely, and if it did happen 8 year olds are old enough to get out of the car.

The kids might mess with the car and make it start moving. Depends on the kids how likely that is. Could be a big risk with some kids and no risk at all with others.

The kids might get bored or scared and get out. They could get hit by a car in the parking lot or get lost (or abducted, but that's really too unlikely to worry about.) Could be a danger, depending on the kids and the situation, but probably not a big risk.

Here are the things I would actually be concerned about:

In some places it's illegal and even where it's not specifically illegal it could be seen as dangerous and neglectful. It's possible that a concerned person could call the police, which could have bad results for everyone involved.

The kids were scared and felt that they were left for a long time. It's not good parenting to put your kids in situations where they're scared if you don't have to.

You and your partner should look into the legality of this in your area. I would approach it as k8t suggests, with an added "And what if someone called the cops? I'd be worried about that if I were you."
posted by Redstart at 6:57 AM on July 27, 2015 [43 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not sure how this gets addressed in a diplomatic manner. That's a fairly large gap in values between these two parents. Plus the whole "car running, air conditioner on" thing sounds like the choice of an adult who does not really know how cars OR children work.

In short, there is little to none about that choice which seems safe. And it might even be illegal, depending on the jurisdiction.... and then there is not want to blow up whatever is functional about the co-parenting relationship your spouse and the ex have with each other.

Considering how many issues are at play, yep, totally normal to be adjacent to this and be entirely thrown off kilter. It's a doozy, for sure.
posted by jbenben at 6:58 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Please don't contact CPS on this. You only have what they told you, as well as this being an issue your partner and his ex need to figure out.

Anecdotally, I was left in the car all the time when I was that age. It was the 80s, but you know, YMMV. I think I wouldn't do it no, but as a kid I had migraines and the thought of going in a store was torture.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:58 AM on July 27, 2015 [19 favorites]

For an hour? sounds terrible. For ten minutes, while she runs in to grab some toilet paper, when they don't want to go in? Somewhere between fine and not-fine, depending on the surroundings, kids, etc. I am not nearly as wary of the running car as others seem to be, since that's what keeps the air conditioner on.

In other words, yes, I have left my eight year old in the running car, with A/C and the dog, while I ran into Starbucks for a few minutes when the other kid had to pee. I would never do this while I did the week's grocery shopping. Not because of the infantesimally small likelihood that some bad actor will come and steal my car with an eight year old and a dog in it, but because if the kid gets bored/scared/has to pee, he has no way of getting my attention.

LEAVING KIDS IN A CAR gets a lot of press because if the car's off, window's closed, kid is a baby or there are child locks, that's a whole different animal and can result in disaster. But if we actually look at the risk analysis in the scenario you described, depending on the length of time it took to shop, this could be anywhere from super OK to kind of a dick move.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:59 AM on July 27, 2015 [17 favorites]

Where are you?
This is a pretty common thing in small towns/rural areas but very uncommon in bigger cities.

If the girls were left in the car in Town population 750 it's very different than City population 2 million in my opinion.

My parents left me in the car a lot. My neighbor still leaves her kids in the car a lot. They are watching the movie on the van screen, and she's from a small town and it seems normal to her.
posted by littlewater at 7:01 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

I should have mentioned, to jbenben's point, that knowing the kid is critical as well. I know my kid is not going to be able take the hand brake off, or be able to get the car into gear -- nor would it occur to him. But I'm sure there are kids who are all "what does this do?" and -- yeah. That's also a factor.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:02 AM on July 27, 2015

There's also a different between 'engine running' and 'car electrics on", right?
posted by stray at 7:03 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, I feel like the parking lot of a Target or Walmart is waaay different than leaving the kids in the car parked in front of the dry cleaners in a little strip mall while a parent dashes inside. Target and Walmart have really big parking lots. Target and Walmart are giant stores without windows viewing their (huge) parking lots.
posted by jbenben at 7:05 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I just glanced at that link to the states in which this is illegal. In Texas, where I am, it only applies if the child is under 7. I also see a trend of this applying in hotter Southern states more than colder Northern states, because that's really the main danger here.

I recall being left in the car occasionally as a kid, with the A/C on, but never for longer than about 30 minutes and not frequently or repeatedly.

I'd say this is not quite CPS territory. It's worth a talk-I like the "kids were scared" angle- and I'm also wondering if mom (presumably single mom? Or does she have help?) is overwhelmed with kiddos and doesn't have time to shop.
posted by quincunx at 7:09 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Age does not always correlate with maturity in kids.

So it is very hard to answer this question without knowing the kids.

One way to look at it might be - at what age is the acceptable. Certainly at age 18 would this be fine - what about 15? 13? 11?

The mom knows the kids and the risk - she made a determination about the line. The discussion should be posed with respect to adjusting that determination for everyone to be comfortable. Without knowing all of the parameters, it's hard to make the call, which means it's not completely unreasonable.

Also with respect to having the car running - I think this is the right choice. Had she left the car off I would have been more worried. Two 8 year olds taking the car - or someone breaking in to steal the car seem really low probability to me...All of the most probable scenarios where the kids manage to get the car in gear would seem to end in a fender bender at most.

Leaving the kids for an hour (if that happened) is not defensible in my mind.
posted by NoDef at 7:09 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to beg to be left in the car around that age, it's more fun to read than to buy groceries -- but I always had the keys (car was off) and I knew where they were so I could go find them for any reason if I wanted to. These would be huge lots, not in a tiny strip mall.

That said, I wanted to be left in the car, and it was clear I could change my mind if I wanted to. And unlike with smaller children, I could get out if I needed to. So the part that worries me is that it upset the kids, had they been okay with it it would have been different. I wouldn't put too much stock in their saying an hour, though, because being stuck somewhere while you're upset always feels longer than it is.
posted by jeather at 7:09 AM on July 27, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Like a lot of people of my generation, I was routinely left in the car when my mother ran short errands - in fact, I'd often ask to stay in the car so I could read and not stand in line at the post office, etc. This was certainly happening by the time I was eight. We left the car doors locked and the windows cracked if it was warm. Sometimes I got a little nervous, but not nervous enough to want to stand in line. A kid can feel nervous without it being a reasonable fear or a traumatic thing.

It is not ipso facto dangerous to leave an eight year old in the car alone or ipso facto a bad idea - why would it be, if the child is mature enough to be left alone and not touch stuff that she's told not to touch? (Kids get left alone in the kitchen, which is a far more dangerous place, all the time much younger than eight.) It's not even ipso facto unpleasant if the kid has a book or some other way to amuse themselves.

I concur that something can feel like an hour when you're little and still only be twenty minutes or so - maybe a little too long to be ideal, but understandable if there were a delay during the errand.

If your nieces don't like being left alone in the car, that's another thing and might be something that your partner brings up with their mother. (Although, again, it depends on how strongly the kids seem to feel - kids go back and forth on stuff, and I certainly remember...not exactly playing for sympathy, but talking about stuff because I wanted adult attention and could tell that a thing would be taken seriously even if I didn't feel especially serious about it. I think I might raise the subject again with the girls and see how they're feeling.)

What I'd really be worried about would be someone reporting their mother to the police and screwing up the kids' lives, because that actually happens. That's what your partner should talk to his sister about - think about her being in the news, having a criminal record, etc, and how that would screw up her employability and her family life.
posted by Frowner at 7:10 AM on July 27, 2015 [56 favorites]

This is not ok. I think the larger issue is the car running. When I was a kid, someone in my class was left in the car like this and accidentally released the emergency brake and the car ended up running over someone.

Some 8 years old are ok being left alone, and some aren't but not in a car with the keys in it and the motor running.
posted by hrj at 7:11 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Leaving the car running is questionable, but questionable in the sense that maybe it's something your partner could bring up with his ex and maybe come to an agreement about. (And as stray points out, she could have just left it in accessory mode without the engine running.) Eight year olds are pretty big kids, so if they're developmentally average 8 year olds, it's not that big a deal.

And I would definitely not let them think this is a big deal. With the hiding from passersby thing, it sounds like they're already overly fearful. There's pretty much no risk of them being trapped, and the risk of stranger abductions, especially of two kids at once, is very very slim.

Don't blow this out of proportion. If your partner feels a need to put his foot down on the running car thing, OK, but this is not the kind of thing that merits bringing in CPS or anything like that. That's a huge, horrible clusterfuck to visit on someone, and it's a huge escalation of hostility.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:13 AM on July 27, 2015

You are overreacting, both because it's not likely that they're great and accurate reporters, and because unless their mom is on a substance or has notoriously bad judgement, she knows the kids much better than you do and probably has a pretty good idea of what they can and can't handle.

Supervising the other (decently smart, caring, sober) parent's parenting is usually a huge waste of time. Parents all make judgment calls based on the situation at hand dozens of times a day. If you are going to second guess them you will go crazy. Let it go. And don't encourage the eight year olds to tell fascinating tales of parental neglect. You do not want them in the habit of playing you off of each other.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:15 AM on July 27, 2015 [20 favorites]

(Oh gosh, I for some reason misread this and thought it was nieces feeling is still that this is not a crisis, but that your partner certainly does have more standing to talk about it. Again, I would probably bring it up because I'd be worried about my ex getting arrested and the impact that would have on the girls rather than because I'd be worried about the safety of the kids in the car.)
posted by Frowner at 7:16 AM on July 27, 2015

I left my 8 year old in the car while running in to buy a couple things/return a library book/grab a coffee. I never left the car running: rather I'd leave the windows an inch open and lock the doors. I never left her for an hour, but also, 8 year olds are poor estimators of time, for the most part. I think what I did was fine.

This is intended to just give you a data point of what different people's norms might be.
posted by latkes at 7:18 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

The big question is whether the engine was on or just the electrics. Like others, I frequently wanted to stay in the car and listen to the radio around that age. Mom left the electrics on but not the engine. I knew how to turn the key to neutral if I wanted or needed to get out.

In 2015 I'd be most worried that someone would call the cops on unattended kids in a car, though.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:18 AM on July 27, 2015

I remember staying in the car while a parent ran into the store, though it was always for quick errands. I also remember that, at that age, my concept of time was incredibly inaccurate, especially if the time was spent doing something I didn't enjoy. I have a vivid memory of my mom sending me outside to play for one hour; I tried to go back inside when I was certain my time was up, but I'd only been out for ten minutes.

But when kids say they're scared, it doesn't matter how long it was or whether they were technically safe. Even if their fear is overblown or irrational, it's the parent's job to help them through it - not to ignore it altogether. Kids should be safe and feel safe. How did their mom handle the aftermath?

Leaving the car running is a definite hell no in my book, though.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:21 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

We were left in the car regularly as kids, mostly at our own request (shopping is boring). However the car wasn't left running, and we don't live in a climate where aircon would be necessary. We were also always given the option of coming or staying.

I see lots of kids in cars around here, looking perfectly happy, and it has never occurred to me to intervene. I would check the legality of it in your area (perfectly legal here), and if it's legal then maybe just mention not leaving the engine running, and giving them a choice about whether to stay or not.

Your children also maybe need to man up a bit - sitting in a car might be boring but running to the other parent to complain about how scary it was several days later seems very OTT. At 8 I would expect them to be able to entertain themselves for half an hour. Are they nervous children in general, or are they trying to play you off against each other?
posted by tinkletown at 7:23 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

By "car running" do they mean the keys were in or the engine was running? I'll chime in as another person who was left in cars all the time as a kid; heck, lots of times we were allowed to open the doors, hang out in the parking lot, etc. We used to whine and moan when she would take the keys (no radio! no AC!) but sometimes she would leave them, or leave the engine running if it really was a "run in and run out" situation.

I used to be left at home alone when I was sick when I was in second grade or whatever too, so probably my childhood is not the best barometer for judgment. However, I just want to say that little kids don't really know how cars work and the engine may or may not have been running.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:23 AM on July 27, 2015

Depending on the model of the car the AC runs off the engine and will not blow cold air if it's off.
posted by winna at 7:24 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

When I was this age I would begggg my mom to leave me in the car when she had to buy groceries. I loved getting to change the radio station, climb into the front seat, etc. I would also duck and hide from strangers, in the same way liked to climb the jungle gym pretending the ground was hot lava. I'd say it's nothing to worry about.

Also when I was eight I thought Sunday mass lasted at least ten hours, minimum. So maybe take the time estimates with a grain of salt.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 7:24 AM on July 27, 2015 [13 favorites]

Honestly, I don't think this is a Big Deal. Very doubtful the car was actually running, and an 8 year old is okay to be left alone for a bit. It "seemed" like an hour but could have been 15 minutes.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:25 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was also regularly left alone in cars at this age, without incident and without remark from anyone who noticed. Frankly, I'd be comfortable leaving my 6-year-old alone in the parking lot of our (very suburban, small-town) Target, assuming she had plenty of books, had been well briefed, and we're talking a 7-minute grab-this-one-thing-and-leave run. I would never do it, though, because of the well-publicized potential for hysterical CPS-phoning policing by strangers.

Rather than jumping to the OMG-irresponsible angle, I'd advise working through some of the actual risk scenarios listed upthread. Knowing the kids, what exactly do you and your partner think could have happened? Now, how likely would this really be to actually happen? 8-year-olds are actually pretty mature; many of them are more than capable of sitting still for 10 minutes without messing with parking breaks and gearshifts, or of exiting a car and summoning help from nearby adults in the unlikely case of emergency. Right outside the front of a major big-box store is a well-trafficked, safe, and likely security-surveiled area.

Also consider that if this relationship is at all acrimonious, you two are certainly going to be predisposed to be critical of the other partner's parenting moves, so definitely correct for that before you do anything drastic like summoning the authorities.
posted by Bardolph at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure why leaving the car "running" is such a sticking point. The kids have AC and radio access. So what if they accidentally (or even intentionally) put the car in gear? They're in a parking lot. The worst that will happen is some very expensive property damage, to the car, the cars around them, or signage. 8 year olds aren't going to take the car out on the open road or start pulling donuts in the parking lot. The girls aren't going to sustain massive bodily harm rolling around in a parking lot or getting bumped into by other cars going parking lot speeds.
posted by phunniemee at 7:28 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is something that used to be sort-of okay (though not for an hour if it really was an hour, and not with the car running) but has become nuclear-grade not-okay under new parenting norms. You should make sure your partner addresses it because in certain states it is both very illegal and the source of a current moral panic that could cause big legal consequences for both your partner's wife and even potentially your partner, whether or not anything bad ever happens as a result.
posted by gerryblog at 7:30 AM on July 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

I concur re: car running. Especially if this happened in a hot state. Only in like, Oregon or Minnesota or something would people NOT view the A/C as absolutely crucial in the dead of summer.
posted by quincunx at 7:33 AM on July 27, 2015

So what if they accidentally (or even intentionally) put the car in gear? ...The worst that will happen is some very expensive property damage, to the car, the cars around them, or signage.

That's a pretty big consequence by itself (though it wouldn't necessarily require the car being on to do it.) But you've also made the car much easier to steal with the kids inside. Also, since you've presumably left it running because it's hot outside, you've left the kids very vulnerable if they shut off the car or if the car stalls out.
posted by gerryblog at 7:33 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

So what if they accidentally (or even intentionally) put the car in gear? ...The worst that will happen is some very expensive property damage, to the car, the cars around them, or signage.

Or kill an elderly or handicapped person that gets in the way?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:38 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

Wow, kind of surprised that people are so horrified by this. I'm going to venture that it's highly unlikely that the kids were in the car with the engine running for an hour; as others have mentioned, kids are very poor judges of time and "what seemed like a pretty long time to me" becomes "an hour."

I think the fact that the kids were frightened is the only thing that really needs to be addressed here, not some theoretical and highly unlikely scenarios where the kids knock the car into gear and have it run away or a bushy-haired stranger comes and kidnaps them etc. Obviously, if the parent is doing things that frighten the kids, that's a problem in and of itself, no matter why they were frightened, and your partner should, of course, address that. But the incident itself strikes me as pretty minor.

And I'm assuming you weren't thinking of actually doing this, but: calling Child Protective Services -- just no. That would be really an pretty terrible overreaction that would redound to the children's detriment far far far more than leaving them alone in a car for a little while, I can promise you.
posted by holborne at 7:41 AM on July 27, 2015 [13 favorites]

Best answer: You're not overreacting but your partner needs to contact the other parent ASAP and get their version of the story. It may have been 3 minutes, it may have been two hours. It may not have happened.


The kids are telling a story that they were put in a situation where they were frightened, and that should NEVER PURPOSELY HAPPEN AGAIN.

That's the issue here. The kids are saying they were scared. Whether or not any of us were ever harmed being in the same situation in our childhoods is irrelevant.

The kids are telling you they were SCARED. So respect that; contact the other parent. Yes, get their input but also get them to understand to not do this again.

Your partner should THANK the kids for telling this story. Tell them that they should also tell the other parent and they will do whatever they can to ensure it never happens again.

When kids tell you something frightens them, the most important thing is to thank them for telling you, try to fix it and then give them the tools to self-advocate.
posted by kinetic at 7:42 AM on July 27, 2015 [12 favorites]

The car running is a big problem for me. I once rescued a maybe 11 year old girl that put a car in to gear in a parking lot under the same conditions. I got to the brake just before she hit something. Yeah, it could just be damage to a car but it could be someone pushing a stroller.
posted by readery at 7:55 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

Unless this was an electric car, I'd also be worried about carbon monoxide poisoning from the exhaust from the running engine. IIRC, it can become a problem whenever a car is stationary with the engine running for long periods of time and not just when in enclosed spaces.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:57 AM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

So I'm going to be unpopular, but here's the other side. I was about 8 (in the early 70's) when this happened to me. Left in a running truck, parked on a hill with the emergency brake on. Long story short, while trying to get back into the back seat after changing the radio, I dis-engaged the brake.
The truck rolled all the way down the hill, sideswiping many cars on the way down. It stopped when we hit the hydro pole. I was inconsolable and terrified. I had nightmares for years, and would not stay in a car with keys in the ignition, no matter how short a time.

To give you context regarding my maturity level, seizures didn't phase me. My mother would regularily stop breathing during hers, and that was no big thing. I was responsible for fishing dead racoons out of the pool, with no emotional issues. The truck incident? Scarred me.
YMMV, but take their fear seriously please.
posted by whowearsthepants at 8:00 AM on July 27, 2015 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your thoughts, there's so many things to think about!!

I really love the idea of focusing on the kids fears, that they were frightened and helping them work through this. That's something we can definitely work on with them because if anything we always want them to feel safe and secure. Also chatting with the kids a bit about car safety would be good. But also not making a big deal of this (which we haven't because we're very conscientious about anything that would seem like arguments between the two parents).

Just to answer a couple of your questions, we have a 50/50 split so neither household has primary custody, if anything its closer to a 60/40 and our household has more time with the kids. We in the south, so yes its hot. We have an amicable relationship with the other parent, however, I never get involved in kids discussions (outside of logistics) because I don't feel its my place.

My main reason for this question was that I was feeling very uneasy. But since I've never had kids of my own or been around kids much it's hard for me to know when I'm being too strict or too lenient.

I really appreciate all of your opinions, it's helped me understand what I should really focus on with this situation. Thanks All!!
posted by lullu73 at 8:09 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm going to step into the "running car" question - it's really not the most relevant detail. If we are talking risks, an adult taking the car on the open road is much more likely to cause a fatal accident - a modern automatic transmission car in park running a target parking lot is probably one of the safer places for a car statistically. Kids dying in a hot car is also unfortunately much more likely.

I'm not defending anyone here - but we should keep some perspective on the risks - just because something could happen isn't enough reason to change one's behavior without taking into account the relevant probabilities. Otherwise, none of us should ever leave our houses in the morning (even that is probably pretty dangerous taking into account all possibilities).
posted by NoDef at 8:09 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm surprised at the amount of 'meh, no biggie' answers here. And just because kids can exaggerate sometimes doesn't mean they always do. I mean, when's the last time you were able to run in and out of target or walmart quickly during regular hours? It's not the same as grabbing a slurpee and a pack of smokes at 7 eleven, especially since you can still see your damn car in the latter case.

I don't think I should have to list some of the things that could potentially go wrong, such as the car overheating, being kicked into gear and running over someone, a creep exposing himself to them (this happened to a friend's kids in a similar situation), the a/c quitting, someone trying to break into the car, another car hitting them, etc. I think the OP is rightfully disturbed especially since it seems like they were in the car for a long time if we assume their time estimation is accurate.

Like others have said, the OP's partner needs to bring this up with the offending parent. I don't think it's helicopter parenting to bring your kids into the damn store with you, no matter how inconvenient. Jesus.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 8:48 AM on July 27, 2015 [9 favorites]

One other data point about "the car was left running" - it is totally possible that the adult could have left the car running for the A/C, and the car was undriveable - if the car has a remote starter.

My car is equipped with a remote starter. When I start the car with the remote starter, the engine runs, and the heater or A/C works. However, if you attempt to operate the gearshift or pedals without the key in the ignition, the engine will SHUT OFF. The engine will also shut itself off after a certain length of run-time - mine is 15 minutes.

I have left my 10-yr old son in the car for a short (generally 20 min or less) trip into the store, exited the car, locked the doors, and then started the car with the remote starter so that the A/C runs. He much prefers staying in the car with whatever-portable-video-game over trekking through the store with me.

In my experience, school age children are incredibly bad about estimating time-frames. 10 minutes regularly seems like an hour to them.
posted by Ardea alba at 9:04 AM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

Leaving the kids in the car when the kids don't want to be left in the car is not okay, regardless of the likelihood of various what-if scenarios. It's involuntary confinement and that's not cool.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:37 AM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm the mom of a 7.5-year-old and a 6-year-old and would have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the mother's actions here. Statistically-speaking, these 8-year-old girls had nothing to legitimately be afraid of in those public, under-video-surveillance parking lots in an age where everyone has a cell phone and help is so readily available should they have required it-- which they OF COURSE did not. Nothing happened. The biggest risk to them (which, again, did not actually happen here) would have been busybodies calling CPS and them being placed in temporary government custody for no good reason. The other biggest risk to their well-being is the other adults in their lives making a huge dramatic ol' mountain out of this tiny molehill and possibly reinforcing some of their anxiety issues, and maybe even undermining their future sense of independence and attainment of real world problem-solving skills. Stoneweaver's answer here is 100% right on.

Being left alone in cars for brief periods in parking lots is how the vast majority of Americans over the age of 35 were parented for decades. Most people I know were parented this way, and most of us do not have any horror stories to report about it at all. The thing is, U.S. children today are the safest they have ever been in human history. Recommended reading: "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy.

I think you are very wise to never "get involved in kid discussions" regarding your partner's children. Leave the emotional labor here around differences of parenting opinions to your partner and the ex.
posted by hush at 9:38 AM on July 27, 2015 [13 favorites]

When I start the car with the remote starter, the engine runs, and the heater or A/C works. However, if you attempt to operate the gearshift or pedals without the key in the ignition, the engine will SHUT OFF. The engine will also shut itself off after a certain length of run-time - mine is 15 minutes.

In which case the kids are locked in a hot car with no AC. I don't think that's really an argument in favor of this scenario.
posted by gerryblog at 9:42 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

The car running thing seems like a red herring. If the car is automatic, you can't take it out of Park unless you have your foot on the brake. It's unlikely the kids would accidentally, or even deliberately, do both. If it's manual, they could take off the parking brake and have the car start rolling, depending on the slope, but in some cars, that's tricky to do, and anyway, that could happen with the engine off. They couldn't put the car in gear without operating the clutch and the gas pedal, which again, is unlikely. The benefit of having the AC far outweighs the risks caused by having the car on.

Also, I'd guess it was more likely that the key was turned halfway so that the AC and radio could be on, but that the engine wasn't actually running. I'm sure I've been in cars where climate control can work without the engine actually on, because I remember people being concerned about draining the battery.
posted by salvia at 9:48 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As the answers to this question point out really clearly -- there is significant disagreement between parents about whether or not leaving kids in the car is ok, so much so that the responses run the gambit from "a-ok, do it all the time" to "call child protective services immediately!" There's also a lot of circumstantial factors that seem like they could be in play: the nature of the community you live in, the maturity level of the kids in question, the timing, the temperature, etc. I don't think we're going to come to any kind of consensus about kids in cars, which makes me wonder if your partner and co-parent can come to any kind of consensus, either - they clearly already have very different opinions about it.

Since you're in a 50/50 co-parenting with an ex situation... I think it's fine for your partner to say to co-parent: "I'm uncomfortable with your decision to leave the twins in the car while you run errands, and the twins expressed that they were uncomfortable, too." But I also think that your partner may have to accept that their co-parent, like so many other parents here, does not share their anxiety and perspective. Your partner will have to decide if this is territory where having a conflict and trying to compromise or force a different future outcome is worth it (given that other parents here reasonably disagree) -- and they'll have to do that in the context of knowing that there are surely going to be a thousand other possible points of conflict in the future (where, to my mind, other parents might here reach a more certain consensus). For what it's worth, I think it's really dicey to try and manage a co-parents parenting choices post divorce and that the better course of action is to work with your children to keep the lines of communication open and to help them develop strategies for good decision making when they find themselves in less-than-deal circumstances.

So I would spend some time making sure that they realize running errands is part of life and that they need to make choices accordingly: go into the store and just deal, or stay in the car, knowing what they now know about that experience. If they chose the latter, then it's good to remind them not to get out of the car, keep the doors locked, don't mess with the car, stay still, stay together, don't talk to strangers, and in an emergency to get out of the car and walk to the help desk at the store and ask for an employee to page co-parent. I might also spend some time helping them express clearly and reasonably their feelings to you and both of their parents: "Mom/Dad, I really didn't like staying in the car last time and was afraid. I'd like to come in with you, and I will be quiet and helpful while you run an errand."

Use this as an opportunity to have a productive conversation with your kids about expectations and possible courses of action. I think that will be more useful than duking out the "is it safe or not" debate with partner's co-parent.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:58 AM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

I had a super helicopter parent-y mom, and this regularly happened. I'd just play my gameboy or listen to music or both. I was way more interested in playing Zelda or whatever than going in to some boring store at that age.

It's funny, I wasn't allowed to walk to the 7-11 on the same contiguous block as my house alone(In a nice neighborhood!) but staying in the car with the doors locked was fine.

I knew better than to get out or let anyone in, and what to do if there was a problem. A few times there was some minor problem, or I got bored or scared or whatever, and I just went in to the store and found my parent. I'd get an earful for wandering around alone and... Everything was fine.

Plus, don't most 8 year olds now have phones? Hell, most of the kids that age I see on the bus have iphones now.

I think it speaks to how ridiculous average parenting has gotten that my first reaction was "wtf" until I realized less than 20 years ago in the 90s that would be me and it was fine.

And yes, sometimes it was literally an actual hour, if my dad was at a job site meeting with a client or something. The worst thing that ever happened was my gameboys batteries dying and there not being any AAs in the glovebox.

I also second the "you need to push the brake to take the car out of park" comments. That combined with a parking brake and no, the car isn't going to run away.
posted by emptythought at 10:43 AM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

pinkademic's analysis seems to fit most my notions about this setup. We don't know certain things about the incidents to say yea or nay, regarding whether it was safe to have left the girls in the car.

Leaving the car running, though is a no-go item. If the girls are not safe enough with the windows cracked for the short time the parent is in the store, they shouldn't be left in the car. If the town is large enough for both a Target and a Walmart, it's large enough for car thieves. A running vehicle is a "take me" magnet. The girls hiding in the back seat would offer no caveat to a potential thief. I can't assess the possibility of the girls exploring the vehicle's controls, so I agree with both those who point out that they are unlikely to be injured if they somehow got it in gear, and those who point out that pedestrians could die. What odds make these possibilities acceptable?

Per above, though, this is your SO's problem to deal with. Others have mentioned that we know nothing about his x's parenting skills, so I would take great pains to counsel the children on what to do and not to do in that situation, rather than letting them see the parents struggle over it. Managing fear is a part of growing up. I don't believe the girls were traumatized by this, and so I wouldn't use their having been afraid as a talking point. I really don't see a way to compel the ex to do anything. It may turn out that a passerby will see the kids in the car and call the police. That eventuality probably has the most chance of happening that the others.

By the way, I live in southern Oregon, and the temp was in the triple digits for several days in a row last week.
posted by mule98J at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding nodef. The kids were way safer in that parking lot than they were driving to get there. We humans are really bad at risk assessment, going with our guts rather than statistics.
posted by metasarah at 12:35 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

To my mind, this is two separate issues.

Leaving the kids in the car is definitely something that differs from parent to parent. My own mother would often leave me in the car by myself, in a big city (albeit always in good neighbourhoods) in pretty hot weather, and nothing ever happened. It's up to your SO and their ex to decide what a good compromise is, but it's not, objectively, as dangerous as people are making it out to be.

What stuck out to me is that the girls were left in the car for a long time with nothing to do. Whenever my mom left me, I ALWAYS had a book or similar to occupy my time with. For many kids, sitting in a locked car with something to do is a much more pleasant experience than being in a crowded store on little legs that aren't always fast enough for Mommy. Plus, as someone above mentioned, it's good for kids to have their boundaries pushed (within reason, of course) and develop coping skills at a young age.
posted by Tamanna at 1:45 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a parent: no, I don't think this was likely a big deal. But I'd probably drop a mention to my ex-: "hey, the kids were kinda worked up about being left in the car." Then butt out and let things proceed naturally.
posted by doctor tough love at 2:38 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are three issues here:
Leaving kids in the car alone, and the danger posed by malicious passers-by - not the biggest worry IME, but not a trivial consideration either.

Leaving kids in a car that is running - were they strapped in, can they get out of the restraints, how likely is it that they will explore/fight and knock car into gear/do other damage. Real concerns, potential real consequences.

Leaving kids in an enclosed car on a hot day - deadly. If that was the reason the car was left running, to keep the kids cool, that borders on criminal negligence. If the car stops for any reason, and those kids are trapped in a hotbox, and it can become deadly very quickly. If you want to scare yourself, do some googling on survival times in hot cars.

We have this regularly here, where passers-by call the police to release children in this last situation. Sadly, we also have too frequently incidents where the child dies. Also a problem with people leaving dogs locked in the car.

Definitely something your partner needs to discuss with the ex.

Finally, the risk to the kids in driving there is irrelevant. We are discussing something entirely different.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:05 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Two small, scared girls visible inside a running vehicle that could easily be used to kidnap them = klaxon bell level of neglect. Children should be with a responsible adult, and not left in such a vulnerable position, period.
posted by Scram at 7:11 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wanted to say thanks again for all your thoughts, they're all really helpful!!

I think it really comes down to some parents are comfortable with this while others aren't. I was taking subways and buses by myself and walking to school by kindergarden, so for me at 8 years old staying in a car by myself would have been fine.

I think what really "threw me of kilter" was their description of how fearful they were and how they didn't like it at all. I guess some kids are ready for this at that age while others aren't. Yes, kids exaggerate, but I know these two very well since we share custody and I know when they're being sincere and when they're telling tall tales.

I really think helping them get through their fear and talking about car safety is a good idea. And also "respecting" their fear as kinetic discussed is important. They trusted us enough to tell us that something bothered them, so we should try to help them through it.

As a "step parent" there are so many times when we're just trying to figure things out, how to be a good/constructive/positive presence in kids life, and also figuring out what works for our relationship with them. So that being said for me, for now, I'm not comfortable leaving them alone in a running car. Maybe if I was their mother I would be fine with that, but as their "step parent" I'm not.

Also, want to reiterate, there's no way I would get involved directly with the ex. Its up to my partner to figure out the most diplomatic way to deal with this. I asked the question more to see if my emotional response was out of bounds, and realized that there is a huge range of responses to this. I asked here, because this isn't something I'd want to talk to anyone about that knows me in my personal life, there are too many share connections between my partner and their ex.

To all the "step parents" and parents out there, good luck! I feel like we're all in this together just trying to figure it out and be good to the kids in our lives :)
posted by lullu73 at 7:26 AM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

An eight year old should be able to manage themselves alone in a car for an hour. I think what would trouble me more than the mom leaving them in the car is that they were so fearful. I would want my kid to be more resilient and capable of handling adversity at eight than to be afraid of people in the Target parking lot while in the confines of their own car. Wary? Sure. Afraid? No.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:41 AM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't know, this doesn't seem so awful, though that really depends on the maturity of the kids and the neighborhood. I was quite regularly being left alone in a running car with the doors locked by 8.

I had a book or a gameboy that were much more interesting than the car or the store, I always understood that I could control the temperature to my liking and open a window or a door in an emergency (though not short of one.) I understood how to recognize an emergency, under what conditions I could trust a stranger (they know the password) and generally what to do if there was any trouble. I was also a total goody-two-shoes, because my parents didn't really give me nonsense restrictions - I trusted completely that if I was being told not to touch something, it was because touching it would harm me in some way.

In a reasonably safe neighborhood with a decently responsible kid, I think this is reasonable. It only becomes not OK if the neighborhood is sketchy or the kid likes to make trouble, in which case it merits a discussion of what the risks are with the parent in question.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 12:46 AM on July 30, 2015

Leaving kids in an enclosed car on a hot day - deadly.

Well, yes and no. For an infant forgotten in the backseat with the A/C turned off? Yes. For two developmentally-normal 8-year-olds intentionally left there with the A/C turned on? No way. Assessing the actual risk of death from vehicular heatstroke to any particular child/ren greatly depends on the actual ages and ability of said child/ren. This kind of blanket statement is misleading in the OP's case of two 8-year-old girls left alone together in the car where the OP has told us the girls said the air conditioner was operating the entire time they were in the car. See the statistics here.

Of the 648 children who have died from vehicular heatstroke in the United States from 1998-2014, more than half of the deaths were children under 2 years of age. Since 1998, exactly three 8-year-olds have died in the US from vehicular heatstroke, representing approximately 1% of all recorded vehicular heatstroke deaths in the US.

Obviously, in preparation for the remote chance the A/C suddenly fails entirely at the exact moment they are in there and the car begins to get too hot for comfort, the OP or their dad could show them how to open a car door from the inside, and show them how to climb into the driver's seat to open the driver's door in the case of backseat child locks keeping them in-- I mean, assuming the girls don't know this or can't deduce this already. Again, this is very much not statistically likely to happen at all. metasarah's comment was entirely correct: "We humans are really bad at risk assessment, going with our guts rather than statistics."
posted by hush at 4:40 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Part-time jobs for creative people   |   Getting and using full MS Office with zero... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.