Hot cars and good Samaritans

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.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

30 thoughts on “Hot cars and good Samaritans

  1. Yikes! And all this happened because they were in the car reading? I think the women skedaddled because they knew at heart that they overreacted and didn’t listen to the boys when they asked them to phone their mothers. It gets harder all the time to be a good parent. I love that four boys wanted to stay in the car to read!

    Like

    1. I was really tickled that they all wanted to read. And yes, I suspect that the women were uncomfortable with their, ahem, overreaction. Doesn’t hurt that my sister and I are well-dressed wealthy-looking White women…

      Like

    1. I agree! They are not toddlers!! I was really happy that all the boys wanted to read; too bad other people didn’t see it like that. But it won’t stop me: I’ll let them read in the car again (when it’s safe).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an unsettling situation! And the boys sound as if they managed themselves extremely carefully in that situation. And I want to agree with you about seeing the good intentions in those ladies’ actions but their hasty exit also speaks volumes about how they considered their choices. Wow. I think about this because I leave my tween in the car often here in Vienna but would would not dare risk it N. America where the level of suspicion is particularly high. Yeah, I’ll be thinking about this one, too, for a while. I’m glad you weren’t on your own and had your sister to debrief with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to know that Austria has not joined in this type of madness. I fear that things in the States (and, to be honest, Canada) have gone a little crazy. And, frankly, this is (yet another) place where the fact that my children and I are white allowed me to make this choice. Imagine their reaction if I were a person of colour! I bet they wouldn’t have walked away. As it is, my sister and I were both annoyed & I’m thinking of turning the post into a longer essay that includes actual statistics… but I’m going to wait until I’m a little calmer. (Which is why I’m responding to comments a week later, too!)

      Like

  3. Glad it all ended without too much drama, but I can definitely understand why you (and likely the boys too) will be thinking about it for a while. It is hard to have decisions questioned (but for what it is worth I would have let them stay and read too).

    Like

    1. I’m still glad I let them stay and read, and I would do the same thing again in a heartbeat. I’m also increasingly aware of just how much privilege I had in this situation – in particular my race and wealth – and how it could have gone poorly for others.

      Like

  4. Yikes! This was a loaded situation and one that will no doubt linger in your minds. I agree with your takeaway, but am a bit confused that the women skedaddled without talking to you. That seems to undermine their credibility a bit. I’m already finding myself thinking about this situation again and again, unpacking it, thinking about nuances and intentions. I can only imagine how it’s replaying for you. I hope that writing about it helped a bit with the unravelling. I like how you included what the kids were thinking throughout. Not only did it give me deeper insight into the moment, it also reiterates that you’ve all been talking about this incident, working through it together. Reliving it. On another note, I, too, am delighted that all four boys wanted to stay and read in the car and, on a slightly catty note (and yeah, I’m going to say it anyway), I suspect that neither of those two women are readers. Perhaps their lenses couldn’t see the delight of lingering in the pages of a new book and your choice to gift that moment to the children rather than forcing them to accompany you into summer grocery shopping hell. Just a thought!

    Like

    1. I love the idea that these women are not readers. Surely any reader knows the pull of a new book, right? Thanks for noticing that we’ve been talking about this incident – we have, indeed. Now, 10 days later, the kids are completely over it & I am able to respond to comments on here. Writing helped – also, my mom weighed in when she realized I was upset. (She thinks we were right.) Sigh. I’m considering a rewrite of this (for who knows what purpose) with a few of the statistics to show just how little danger the kids were actually in…

      Like

  5. Although it is kind and generous to see this as genuine concern for someone else’s children and community, the situation as described did not warrant their concern and their quick departure when parents arrived leave me wondering about their motives. Doesn’t community require communication?

    Genuine concern for others would include communication of that concern. Genuine concern would have included negotiations of shared values and standing by ones beliefs.

    It’s hard to parent (or teach for that matter) under a microscope and that is our modern dilemma – we are all under a microscopic impulse with no time for analysis of the data. You are making informed decisions and based on reflection. It sounds like they were acting on impulse to a knee-jerk standard from a headline: tabloid parenting .

    Like

  6. Wow! This is quite the story! I agree that they should have spoken to you, even briefly to, say something that justified their actions. I do not like that they made your kids get out of the car either…..that sounds very dangerous to me. I would be turning it over in my head again and again, too. A very nicely written piece that gives us (the readers and moms) a lot to think about. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow – your story and experience really speak to so much of what is shifting in our world these days… and you write so many true and insightful things in your retelling of this experience.

    Like

  8. I’ve lived all my life in the humid southeast and am recalling the days before all cars had AC, when everyone rolled the windows down in summer and when, as burgeoning preteens, we occasionally waited for a grown-up’s errand with windows and even doors open … I find strangers making the boys get out more alarming. All’s well that ends well, so positive presuppositions can generally be assumed (kudos to you in this regard) but it seems a simple dialogue should have assuaged their concern. Or maybe simply waiting with them until you returned … there would have been no need to exit, right?

    Like

    1. The fact that the women made the boys get out of the car is the part that makes me most upset – even more so than them leaving as we approached, which I can attribute to embarrassment or conflict avoidance. I grew up in Texas, California and (mostly) South Carolina and I’m with you: sometimes we waited outside while our parents ran their errands. I know that there are plenty of things from the “good old days” that are actually not great ideas, but I’m pretty sure that boys reading in the car is not one of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yikes! Through all of this, I noticed how you never showed your mixed emotions to the kids. You always maintained positive intentions for the people who got involved. I do agree, I wish they had stuck around to let you know about their concerns and why they got involved. That would have made all of this feel different.

    Like

    1. I, too, wish the women had stuck around. My guess is that two blond, white, well-dressed (well, shorts & t-shirts, but, you know, decent t-shirts) women showing up was not exactly what they were picturing as they saved our kids. I’m betting they were a little embarrassed… and I really really believe that most people are pretty good at the core, so hopefully they were a little shaken when their assumptions were challenged.

      Like

  10. I read your piece this morning and have been thinking about a response. If I saw kids the age of your kids, I wouldn’t at all worry they weren’t going to be OK in the car for a few minutes. The windows were down, they can let themselves out, etc. I am still quite worried about leaving my children in the car, but they are younger than your boys. I need to get over it at some point! My husband came home today for lunch so I could go out to an appointment. When I returned he was in the yard, having just finished a conversation with the guy who is making the new sidewalk in front of our house. The kids had been inside alone for about 5 minutes. I chatted with him for a minute and then came inside. My daughter was looking for snacks. “Since we were home alone and I was babysitting I thought I should get my brother something to eat!” LOL Clearly she is feeling ready for some extra responsibility, even though I am not quite ready. By contrast, my sisters and I spent up to an hour in the car in the summer waiting for my mom to shop for groceries. We hated shopping! Nobody every bothered us, thank goodness. Are your boys still talking about the lady who made them get out of the car?

    Like

    1. I love that your daughter was “babysitting” for 5 minutes. 🙂 I read Lenore Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids a few years ago & it really helped me put some risks in perspective. There are definitely things I’m not comfortable with, but in my neighborhood we’ve tried to create some spaces where kids can roam a little. It was nerve-wracking at first, but now I love it – and so do they. That said, this incident cracked my bravado a little (that plus travel is why I’m only responding to comments right now) – I was angry enough that I had to really think about if maybe there were other emotions behind my anger. I’m sad to say that I mostly feel a little self-righteous (I know my stats – for example, the mean age of victims left in hot cars is 2.8) and that any fear I have is of other people reporting me, not of any actual danger to my kids. My boys have stopped talking about the incident, though my 11-year old hesitated just yesterday to wait in the car while I checked into the hotel – I could see the car from the lobby and, again, he was reading a book… all the problems would be solved if his books just had shorter chapters!

      Like

  11. Wow! That is unsettling. I’m glad it had a safe and happy ending. Also, it opened the door for some great discussion between you, your sister, and your children. Thank you for sharing your story and giving all of us something to consider!

    Like

    1. It was an unsettling incident. I’ve given it some serious thought (both before & after writing this) and now, ten days later, I can honestly say that I think leaving my kids to read was perfectly reasonable. I think the hardest part is that the women didn’t say anything to my sister or me, leaving us to make assumptions about their motives.

      Like

  12. If your kids were little, like mine, this would be a very different story. (For me, it’s not something I could or would consider.) However, like you said, your kids are old enough to get out of the car and come find you in the store.

    At least they didn’t call the police. I kind of felt that’s where we were heading…

    Like

    1. I, too, was afraid they had called the police. Sad that my biggest fear is not my children’s safety but others calling the police about my parenting choices… Sigh. Also, I would not have left them there if they were younger. I like to say that my two were at risk of being dumb until recently. I would never have left them if they didn’t know how to get in touch with me, move through a parking lot safely & independently, not fight for no reason whatsoever, and etc. Never fear, your day will come. Can you even imagine Ari reading quietly in the car for 15 minutes? 🙂

      Like

  13. You have a gift for using writing to unpack complicated situations — or maybe you have a gift for getting into complicated situations that merit written unpacking! Both, I suppose. In any case, the conclusion where you arrive, ““Let’s be grateful there are people in the world who are looking out for children who might need help,” feels fitting and optimistic, especially in the absence of any further communication between you and those other women.

    Like

    1. I think you are closer to correct when you say that I have a gift for getting into complicated situations! My husband would probably tell you that I’ve never see a tree that I can’t connect to a forest if you give me half a chance. At least with a blog I can write about it instead of explaining it all to him.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s