My sister and I were finishing up a quick grocery run towards the end of this year’s week-long family gathering at a beach in South Carolina. As she grabbed a bag from the cart, she laughed and said, “Well, we haven’t been arrested yet, so the kids must be ok.” I hefted the other bag and exchanged a rueful glance with a woman nearby – a mother, I assumed – who had smiled at the comment. “We left them reading in the car,” I explained. She chuckled and we walked into the thick, warm southern air.
Frankly, I thought the boys were crazy to stay in the minivan because South Carolina’s humidity can be oppressive, but we’d just been to the bookstore and all four of them had new books. They’d been reading since the minute their seatbelts were on, and they had zero interest in abandoning their stories to watch their moms get salad fixings and fish. My oldest has already had a babysitting job, and all four of them walk to and from school every day, so my sister and I had left the windows down, reminded them to be nice to each other, and told them we’d be back in ten.
We probably took closer to fifteen minutes (we ended up with chicken instead of fish, so there was a little negotiating), but we were still shocked to see all four of our boys out of the car and heading reluctantly towards the store accompanied by several adults just as we stepped into the parking lot. It turns out that two women had seen the boys reading in the car and decided they were in danger. One of the women was already on the phone with “someone” before either of them said anything to the boys. My oldest immediately asked if they were calling the police, and the other woman said no, but it’s hard to imagine what else was going on when the boys overheard “yes, four young boys in a car in the Publix parking lot.”
The way the boys tell the story, the women were annoying, overbearing, nosy, horrible people. But I’m not sure I trust the outraged tweens. Still, it’s clear that one of the women asked where they were from and freaked them out by answering her own question. (She read our license plate.) And they all agree that when the boys said they were fine because the windows were open, one of the women said, “Would you leave a million dollars sitting in your car? You all are more precious than that.” (At which point a real miracle occurred: my more outspoken child thought, “Well, actually it *is* pretty different because a million dollars can’t walk away if something happens, and my mom would definitely not leave the windows down if there was money in the car” but he kept his mouth shut.) And we know that the good Samaritans declined the boys’ repeated attempts to have them call us – “We know their cell phone numbers. They’re just in the store.” – in favour of having the boys to get out of the car and come with them to the store.
That’s when we came out, groceries in hand.
When they saw us coming, the two women skedaddled. My sister and I didn’t immediately know what was going on, so we weren’t quick enough to stop them or even to make eye contact. They were gone. The boys got back into the car, we sorted out the story, calmed them down, and headed off on one more errand. That time, I stayed in the car with them while they read. The temperature was identical. No one looked at us.
Days later, I keep running through the whole incident in my mind. I am not even remotely sorry about leaving the kids in the car. They are not babies or toddlers or even early elementary children. They know when they are hot, they know how to open a car door, and they know how to find us in a store that is mere yards away. I was actually pleased that they wanted to read, and I’ve done my research (because I care about things like this), so I also know that more children die or are injured in parking lots than in parked cars. No one would have glanced twice if I were in the car alone, reading; my children were also safe.
I’m not mad at the women for worrying, either. To be fair, I think they were wrong, but I’d much rather live in a world where communities of people look out for children than in one where children are neglected. They were worried and they acted on their worry. This is what I told our kids.
That said, I found the whole situation unsettling. In a society where parental actions are regularly judged and where mothers, in particular, must walk a terribly narrow path in order to meet other people’s expectations (here we had to choose between being overly protective and too blasé), concern for children’s well-being should spring from a sense of community and kindness rather than from a performative sense of what “should” be done.
In this case, I think what upsets me is that the women left without talking to us. Granted, they didn’t do what many people do: call 911 but do nothing about the children they have deemed to be at risk; there is a lot to suggest that they were genuinely concerned about the children. They did go too far, in my opinion, by asking the kids questions about where they were from (all four informed us indignantly that they won’t even tell people that online) and especially by getting the kids out of the car. I don’t want my children to ever follow a stranger out of a space I’ve determined is safe. I think I would feel better about the whole thing if they had spoken to us, the mothers, once they saw us. But as I judge the actions of these good Samaritans, I entrap them in the same snare I resent so strongly. Were they overprotective? Do I have any more right to say that than they do to suggest that I was negligent?
I want to believe that these women were actually watching out for my children not just performing goodness. I want to keep firm hold of my conviction that my own judgment was correct and that there was no need for their intervention. But I’m finding both of these beliefs to be slippery. One way or another, I keep repeating what we told the kids: “let’s be grateful there are people in the world who are looking out for children who might need help.” I have a feeling I’m going to have to say that a few more times before I’m done thinking about this.