Early this week a friend from high school posted this status update on facebook: “Friends who are parents, especially parents of children still in car seats: Would you leave your toddler, strapped into their seat while you ran into the post office? Car is turned off and your quick dash is at least 4 minutes long. It’s 55 degrees and you’re in a suburban/city area very close to a major highway. I’m especially interested in (names removed for privacy) thoughts as they live in very similar areas.”

Eventually 40 responses were typed. I’ve read them all and haven’t been able to get the thread out of my mind. In fact, my thoughts are so scattered that this is my third go-round in trying to write a post about it. The responses were given with an assumption of some sort of privacy, so I’m not going to name or quote anyone.

Two parents copped to doing it. Most everyone else said no. What surprised me was the number of people who cited their parental love or the preciousness of their children as motivation to not leave them for several minutes. The implication was those who made the choice to run into the store loved their kids less, were inferior parents, were exposing their child to a catastrophic risk.

A staggering 258,000 children were kidnapped in a single year according to an oft cited report issued in 2002. The vast majority of those children, 200,000 of them, were abducted by family members. 58,000 were taken by people they knew or strangers, but according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children non family member abductions were least common. Of the 258,000 kidnappings in the report 115 were “stereotypical” kidnappings, which means “the child was held overnight, transported 50 miles or more, killed, ransomed or held with the intent to keep the child permanently“.

I am not trying to make light of kidnapping. As a parent the idea that someone would take my child from me is my absolute worst nightmare. It does happen, it is real. In 2002, the year the kidnapping report was released, there were 72.9 million children in the United States. Less than 115 of them were killed by a kidnapper.

In 2010 approximately 171,000 kids were injured in car accidents and more than 1,200 were killed.

Yet, I don’t break out in a sweat when I’m strapping my kids into the car seat.

Fear distorts risk.

Do you guys know about the blog Red Wine and Applesauce? The author is a mother and a journalist who specializes in vaccines, parenting, and prenatal and child health. Last week she wrote a post about the flu vaccine in pregnant women. According to the latest peer reviewed scientific studies health benefits for mother and child were found when the mother was vaccinated against the flu. She also included an anecdotal account of a friend who lost one of the twins she was carrying after contracting the flu. I had never commented on her blog before, but the inclusion of an anecdote bothered me enough to voice my opinion.

I am pro vaccine. Even after C experienced an adverse reaction to the chickenpox vaccine that eventually snowballed with other illnesses to land him in the hospital I am pro vaccine. Based on the results of varied research studies conducted within the academy and published in peer reviewed journals I believe the risk of disease is greater than the risk of the vaccine itself. I believe in herd immunity. I believe that it is my responsibility as a member of this society to vaccinate myself and my children in order to help protect the vulnerable who are unable to be vaccinated due to health or age.

The anti vaccine movement often relies on anecdotal evidence to prey upon the fear of parents. The “studies” produced by the movement are not published in peer reviewed journals, which require adherence to scientific method and ethical data collection and use. It bothered me that a writer that I respect would also use anecdotal evidence to bolster her point.

I’ve been to the anti vaccine sites. Not going to link to them here, but you could find them with a simple google search. I’ve read the heartbreaking stories of families affected by adverse reactions to vaccines. Those reactions can’t always be conclusively linked to vaccines, but sometimes they can. They are not to be dismissed. They are tragedies and my heart aches for the families. Still, I vaccinate my children. Because the risk of disease is higher than the risk of injury. Because although I fall prey to fear on a regular basis in this case the science and statistics speak louder than the anecdotes.

Back to the kid left in the car. Would I do it? No. But I’m sort of envious of the person who did do it. I honestly don’t think it is a big deal. My parents did it with us as kids. My Mom tells a story about running into the dry cleaners with a baby me in the car in which I stole her fries from the bag of fast food and chowed down.

I wouldn’t do it mostly because I know you can get in trouble for doing it. And do you know what I do fear disproportionately? Authority.

***Kidnapping, vaccines, issues that get us hot under the collar as parents…if you disagree with me I do welcome your comments, if you agree with me I welcome your comments. I am going to ask if anyone decides to comment that that we all keep it respectful. It doesn’t do a lick of good to name call or act superior. Whether you agree with me or not.


There should be a law that two year olds are required to wear overalls.

new slippers

Amazing alpaca slippers from Uncle A and Aunt B! Perfect for Syracuse winters.


27 thoughts on “Risk

  1. Hey Karen. This is such a thoughtful, well-written piece I find it hard to believe anyone would disagree with it… but this IS the Internet after all. 🙂 You immediately reminded me of an exchange I had on a pregnant-lady message board, where a woman posted a question about whether or not to go to a sushi restaurant while pregnant. The question was not, “Should I eat sushi,” because heaven forfend–no pregnant woman would EVER do that (um… what’s the population of Japan again?). No, the question was, can she “risk” eating there at all, when a knife that was used on raw fish might somehow touch her salad. I responded that she was more likely to get killed in the car on the way to the restaurant than she was to contract anything from the food. So. Let’s just say that this was not the most well-received remark I have ever made on the internet.
    As to your question, I never left M in the car unattended, but because of the authority thing you mention, not the kidnapping thing. (Doesn’t locking the car take care of the kidnapping thing?)
    Great post!

    • Thanks H. If you aren’t reading Red Wine and Applesauce you totally should. She responded to my comment and made the danger of driving point as well, which made me like her more because I’d initially made the point in the comment I wrote, then took it out during revisions….

      And yup, I can imagine that your comment didn’t go over well.

  2. Hi Karen! Well done…you’ve captured what so many think yet are afraid to say. I personally have never left my kids in the car when on an outing. But when we are leaving the house and I get them both in the car, both strapped in the car seat and realize I forgot my phone, my wallet, to let the dog in…yes, I’ve left my kids in the car in my driveway. I lock the doors while I run in the house, and it’s only been 60 seconds tops, but I admittedly panic while I am in the house. Partly for the kidnapping thing, partly for potentially judge-y neighbors, partly because what if Max unbuckles himself and somehow gets the car in neutral (even though I take the keys) and rolls out into the street and on and on in my crazy, badthingscanalwayshappen world. I struggle with “issues” like this all the time because I yearn for the simple times in which I grew up, when I was definitely left in the car, definitely played outside alone, definitely didn’t have a cell phone until college, definitely walked everywhere by myself or at best with my younger sister(s). And I think I turned out to be alive, responsible, careful, cautious, among other positive qualities. However, my parents had the good fortune of raising us then and we have to raise kids now, in a world that is miles away from our youth. And as much as I don’t want to live in fear, sometimes it’s hard to ignore. (For me. I know and own that I’m irrational at times.) Yes, this is based on love of my children, but I certainly don’t think parents who act differently love their children less. I applaud them for thinking rationally and weighing the consequences and making a choice that works for them.
    I hope you guys had a great holiday season!

    • Our driveway goes all the way behind our house to a garage at the back end of our property. Confession: I have zero problem running back inside if I’ve forgotten something, or even pulling all the way into the driveway on the way from errand one to errand two to duck into the bathroom.

      Usually I’m wildly irrational, and completely led by my feelings. But with parenting I’m starting to recognise being led by my feelings can create attitudes that are actually more risky than what I’m trying to prevent.

      Hope you guys are doing well, too!

  3. Karen,

    I read the blog free-range parenting. And I’m not a complete free-range parent. I make sure my daughter has a parent with her when we’re going door to door selling girl scout cookies (unlike when I was a kid). But I frequently leave my kid in the car to run in and get the thing I forgot on the counter. I let my kids play in the front yard for a few minutes when we get home from school and there’s about 10 minutes of sunlight left for the day — with the drapes open so I can keep an eye on them. I have once or twice run into a store for a brief, brief second and left my kid in the car (locked and off and in park.) But I fear the other parents admonishing me or getting in trouble more than I fear anything bad actually happening. My 7 year old walks to school alone sometimes when she feels like it. (With a parent in the car following her, making sure she’s looking both ways when she crosses the street.) Once, someone confronted my husband in his car making sure he wasn’t a creep following her. Another time, on the first day of school, when I let the 7 year old and her little brother do this, they started shouting at me, “Mom, pull over and let us in! There’s a stranger!” It was a jogger.

    I feel pretty safe. But I’m still thankful for safety locks on the car. (Max has twice in the past month or two pulled the minivan door open as I’m about 5-8 feet away from the front of his school and the car is still moving.) He just is eager to see his friend. I don’t want him to fall out and die. So… safety locks it is.

  4. Given the criteria: car is off, will be gone 4 (I’m adding a max of 10 minutes), shady spot; then Yes – I would be okay with leaving one or more kids in the car unattended.

    But I wouldn’t.

    Why? Because the risk of some member of the public freaking out and calling 911 and causing a scene is much higher than the risk of anything that could happen to the kid(s).

    I’m not afraid of kidnappers, murders, politicians, rapists, thieves. I’m afraid of the “well meaning” public.

    • I would totally be that “well meaning public”. Haha. Every time I close a car door in a parking lot, pick up some keys, etc and turn them into some front desk…I think, hope I am not screwing some person here.

      Wouldn’t call 911, but I have been known to watch a car until a parent comes back. I just think, shit, what if they have been left there? I guess it comes my job and seeing how some people treat their kids.

      • Honestly Erika, if I had your job I think my worldview would be considerably different. And I think what you are talking about is being a decent human, not “well meaning” in a way that is gonna screw someone over. If I saw a toddler in a car alone (and I don’t remember that happening as an adult) I’d probably stick around as well. Even though I don’t think it is a big deal.

  5. Karen, you should read The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. It is not a book about parenting, but a book about probability and randomness. It challenged a lot of the way we look at things and respond, and fits nicely into this discussion.

    For the record, I have occasionally left my children in the car. Especially when we lived overseas and had to pick up our mail at the APO. I would run in, open the box, grab my stuff, and run back out. I rarely did this though, even thought it would literally take me less than 3 minutes, because of the social awkwardness it could create. HUGE culture there to call out parents who left their kids in the car, ever. Witnessed a woman being berated for leaving her infant in the car as she was carrying a huge box. It took her 30 seconds to pick up the package from the desk and there was no way she could carry it and the baby. And, she was literally watching her baby through the post office window the whole time. It was maybe 10 steps from the post office door to her car…seemed crazy to me.

    Someone close to us homeschools and she was telling us how a homeschooling acquaintance of hers had representatives from the school district come out to essentially audit what she was doing with her kids. No matter your stance on homeschooling, it isn’t normal for her school district to do this. I suggested that someone may have called Child Protective Services because they saw the kids home during school time. I have been giving my kids more and more freedom. They are good kids and need to experience risk in controlled environments, to build up their own independence and self esteem. But my number one fear isn’t them getting hurt, it is another parent arguing with me about my parenting choices or calling CPS to complain that I let my kids walk to and from school alone.

    • Wow. Why not offer the Mom some help carrying the package instead of yelling at her?

      And I’ll check out the book. I’d read any suggestion from you guys!

      Our neighborhood is much more urban than yours, but someone told me about a professor that figured out a path for her kindergartner to walk to school without crossing any streets. She got in trouble for it.

      When did that become a thing? Kids not being able to walk to school? I guess it has been 20-30 years since we were elementary school students (feels like yesterday to me!), but when I was in high school from 91-95 I’d definitely see little kids walking. When did it change? Our kids are too close to qualify for a bus (I think we are just over a mile away from their future school and busing begins at 1.5), but I can’t let them walk unless I’m with them? So every parent in the 1.5 radius is expected to have the scheduling flexibility to either drive them or take two 20 minute walks a day? What the hell?

      • Crazy right? The walk to our house is a half a mile, and since we live on the same street as the school, it is a straight shot. Our kids are older also, 3rd and 5th grades. Technically, you only have to walk with your kindergartner, older grades can walk by themselves. But you get occasional comments and/or looks from other parents. Well meaning, but I actually think my kids are better off walking on their own most of the time. Even if other parents walk their 6th graders in.

  6. Karen, I had not seen your blog before and was brought here by your link to mine (and thank you for that). Your comment regarding the use of the anecdote stuck with me as well. As you know since you read my blog regularly, I don’t usually do that. In retrospect yet again, there may be some part of me that did it out of desperation (“for goodness sakes, you people who can’t be swayed by reason, here’s an anecdote!”). 🙂 I think about risk a lot, obviously, both in my professional work and in my daily life. And I try to do it while acknowledging that I have fear and emotions influencing me and that I should be aware of the extent to which I’m relying on those versus hard numbers. (I admit I will sometimes make a decision based on fear, including fear of future regret, even if I know, intellectually, that the numbers don’t add up. I’m human. We all are. 🙂

    I actually made this exact calculation the other day: I had forgotten something in the house (I really don’t remember what it was), and I needed to run back in (and needed the keys to unlock the door, so the car would be off). My son was already strapped into his car seat. If I pulled into driveway, should I leave him there or bring him in (pain in the butt)? It would take less than 2 minutes. We were on a residential street with occasional traffic, probably a couple cars per hour. It was about 60-65 degrees out. I was never worried about kidnapping, and in fact, that thought has never crossed my mind in these situations (including when I had to run into the gas station for something SUPERFAST a week later and my son was already passed out and it was 11pm… and I did run in with him in the car and was out in literally 60 seconds). But, what DID cross my mind was this: I’m pregnant, and I’ve had some bad luck lately with a variety of things. And I’m clumsy. What if I tripped in the house and fell? What if I had trouble getting up or was passed out. In about 5 seconds, I mini-calculated this: 60-65 degrees is just barely warm enough on a sunny day that the internal temp of the car could rise to uncomfortable, perhaps dangerous, levels on a sunny day (it was a sunny day and it was Texas). My son is not yet able to undo his car seat buckles. Tripping is not uncommon, but tripping and landing in such a way that I break a leg or something is unlikely – though possible. The hassle of taking him in/out would add 10 minutes. So, I did this: I rolled down the window about 3 inches (that would help with temp), and I grabbed my phone (I could call someone if something happened), and I ran in and then back out.

    That long anecdote is to say that the risks that one considers will vary from one situation to the next, and the way we mitigate them (or remove them) may also vary. I made similar risk-benefit calculations with the gas station a week later. (It was New Year’s Eve and we were coming home late for us, but the likelihood of anyone pulling in to that neighborhood station at that hour wasn’t likely in terms of worry about having the police called. I, too, have a disproportionate fear of state authority, for MANY reasons.)

    Meanwhile, someone mentioned above the sushi question. I’m pregnant, as I said, and I went out for sushi for my birthday recently. I only ordered (I thought) what were cooked-fish sashimi options. I did that because I figured this: the odds of getting sick from the raw fish was pretty unlikely, but the only benefit was one night of good sushi. Was that worth the tiny risk of something major? In this case, the “major” thing made the answer no, even though the risk was tiny. However, one dish I ordered, accidentally, did have raw fish on top. I ate it. I enjoyed it. I had mitigated my risk already by mostly ordering cooked-fish items, I knew this restaurant and was familiar with their practices and their sanitation/food safety record, and this was a very small amount of raw fish. The enjoyment of that small amount exceeded my concern about the tiny risk, even for something major.

    Sorry this is so long, but my point is that these risk-benefit calculations ARE very important, and I hope that others are thinking through both the risks and the benefits as rationally as possible and then acknowledging where their emotions (or desires – I LOVE sushi and it was my birthday!) come in… and then take responsibility for them. And yet, I know that so many don’t make these calculations, or don’t know how, or don’t have enough info, or don’t want to take responsibility for them… Sigh.

    This makes me want to address risk more directly on my blog at some point. I probably will, and I’ll be sure to link to this piece! Thank you for exploring this issue here!

    • Tara, thank you for reading and for the comment. I’m incredibly flattered. And embarrassed. Clearly I’m no science writer, I’m just a stay at home Mom with a big mouth. You could shoot cannon ball sized holes through my reasoning-for example it bugs me that I have no idea how to control for the amount children are exposed to “stranger danger” compared to the number of times kids get in automobiles.

      Sincerely, your blog is one of my favorites. I totally get why you included the anecdote in your post. And I have still been worrying about being disrespectful. I want to reiterate that my comment in no way meant to diminish your friend’s experience.

      Enjoyed reading your comment thoroughly. I agree that small calculations of risk proceed behavior constantly as a parent. I do leave my boys in the car in the driveway-but I wouldn’t do it on a 90 degree day. Or even a 75 degree day. If it was 12 degrees (we are in Syracuse, sadly it is often 12 degrees) I’d only do it if we’d already been driving around so the car was warm. So yes, tiny assessments of risk are often the meat of parenting. Hadn’t thought about it before and would love to read what you have to say about risk.

      And just so you know, most of my posts are much more Mommy blogish. I write about poop. A lot. And not just the boys’. Just wanted to give you fair warning. Also, many congratulations on your pregnancy! Glad you got a taste of raw sushi.

  7. When I was five, my friend and drove his mom’s station wagon through a split rail fence while she was in the bank. However, I don’t think today’s cars will go into gear with no key. That being said, I have left my kids in the car if I had to run in somewhere for a second.

  8. I want to do it every damn day on quick errands but i don’t because I am afraid of getting in trouble.

    I have done it in my driveway though, twice, to go inside and pee or grab something quickly.

  9. I’ve left a kid in the car to run another kid into preschool, back in the day. Several moms did this. We just locked the car and ran them in. I never left them and went to run errands but I didn’t see this as a big deal.

    My kids are on the older side now (one off to college, the other two 15 and 12) and I lean (and have leaned for some time) much more toward a free range style of parenting. My boys play outside unattended and have for years. If they are going to leave the court, they need to tell me where they are going. They ride their bikes to the library, to go fishing, to get a treat at the CVS, whatever. As long as they are buddied up, I’m perfectly fine with that. I think it’s right and healthy for them to be out being kids like we were growing up. Statistically, the risk is less than it was when we were young.

    • It’s such a strange thing-being scared to let your kids play outside because you are worried about getting into trouble with the authorities.

      Our impulse to wrap our kids in cotton and protect them from everything as a society is going to come back and bite us in the ass when the kids grow up and can’t take care of themselves.

      • You are absolutely, one hundred percent right about that. My daughter has several friends who didn’t make it back for their second semester of college. It wasn’t due to drinking or partying excessively, it was more due to a lack of independence and coping skills. Our society needs to find a balance in which kids can explore and build confidence in their ability to cope with danger and risk. After all, don’t most things that are novel feel risky? If there is no experience with this, how will they cope?

  10. Man, this bugs me too. I have totally left my child in the car. Lots. Not when it’s hot out, but seriously? I’m at the ATM–I am NOT going to wake up my sleeping child while I get out and deposit checks. And I’ve definitely brought her in when I secretly wished I could just leave her in the car for a few minutes because I’m afraid of other people’s reactions. I think we’re a little bit crazy these days with the over protective parentlng. And we are terrible at assessing risk. They had a great bit on that on the Freakonomics podcast a few months back. There’s way too much judging in the parenting world. Sigh. This is why I don’t watch TV news–they make it sound like everyone’s out there getting knifed, shot or stabbed–and then, quick, oh look a puppy! We have a crazy heightened sense of violence due to easy access to news, but really most of that stuff is extremely rare. It makes me sad that we have that kind of fear.

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