The parenting article going viral on the web right now (1,700 comments and counting) is titled, "The Day I Left My Son in the Car."
Anyone clicking on it might understandably expect to read yet another horrifying piece about a parent who forgot her child in the car one fateful day and returned, hours later, to death and despair. That is, in fact, the scenario you can read about for seven full pages in this month's Parents Magazine. (Seven pages being the magazine equivalent of Moby Dick.)
But the Salon piece by Kim Brooks is different. She didn't forget her son for hours. She left him in the car for about five minutes while she ran into the store to buy some headphones. While she was out, he played contentedly on her iPad. How do we know this?
A bystander videotaped the boy.
And then she sent the video to the cops.
Long story short, Kim was arrested and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a charge that sounds (she writes) as if she'd bought him a beer. It actually means she was charged with not supervising him diligently enough.
In the article, she talks about feeling guilty and distraught and eventually being advised by a friend to call me -- I believe I'm America's expert on this topic. Dial she did, and just as she was about to tell me her story, I stopped her, saying, "No, let me tell you your story," because it's always the same: A parent, usually a mom, makes a seat-of-the-pants decision: Drag my kid out of the car and make this into a longer stop? Or leave him behind, the way our parents left us?
Here's what we have forgotten: This is a totally legitimate question.
What's more, if a parent decides that the neighborhood is reasonably safe, that it's not a boiling hot day and that the errand is short enough for her to run it solo, she has not committed a crime. She has made a rational decision.
The bystander thought otherwise, as did the cops and the district attorney. Kim's lawyer advised her to plead guilty, and so she was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. She also had to attend parenting classes.
As if she'd been a bad parent.
There are those who will say leaving a child in a car unattended for any period of time is putting the child at risk. After all, every year, 30-40 children die waiting in cars -- a true tragedy. An analysis shows, however, that the vast majority die when they are forgotten there all day, or when they get into the car without their parents' knowledge and then can't get out. In other words: Not when mom is running an errand.
The reality is, having a child wait in the car does put a child at risk, but so does taking a child OUT of the car: The risk of being hit by a truck, mugged in the parking lot, mauled by a pack of wild dogs... ALL these dangers are possible; none are probable.
If we judge parents for putting their kids at very low risk, we could jail them for serving solid food (the child could choke!) letting them walk down stairs (the child could fall!) or permitting them to join a sport (concussions!). Our first order of business would be to prosecute any parent who drives her kid anywhere: The number one way children die is as passengers in cars.
We haven't made those things illegal (yet) because we understand there is no such thing as a risk-free world. But one risk does loom large: Being a parent in these unforgiving times.