The Thinking 

The Fatally Distracted Parent

April 12, 2010


THIS ARTICLE is almost too upsetting to read. The Washington Post examines the relatively rare, but increasingly common, incidence of children who die when they are left unattended in the back seats of cars during warm weather. It’s horrific. One child reportedly pulled out all her hair before succumbing. Some of the parents have faced criminal charges.

All of the cases appear to involve parents or relatives shuttling children to day care or babysitters. An investigator blames poor cognitive processing:

Some people think, ‘Okay, I can see forgetting a child for two minutes, but not eight hours.’ What they don’t understand is that the parent in his or her mind has dropped off the baby at day care and thinks the baby is happy and well taken care of. Once that’s in your brain, there is no reason to worry or check on the baby for the rest of the day.

That’s right. Drop off and forget. This whole way of life is criminal. Our entire culture, not the parents themselves, should be indicted for child neglect. If parents can’t remember when their babies are in the back seat of the car, how can they care for them day after day? For every baby neglected this way, there are thousands who are neglected in smaller, less noticeable ways, leading chaotic lives, shunted around like packages and suitcases. This is a wrong way to live and anyone living this life must sense it. But again, these parents have suffered and I don’t think it’s fair to charge them with murder. The deaths of these children should weigh heavy, like millstones, on all those who trumpet women’s liberation and the casual destruction of home.

Notice the mention in the story of a mother who is an Army veteran. Her frenetically over-scheduled life, with children conceived through artificial insemination while her husband is in Iraq, is desolating. It’s a chilling story. Our culture may shower children with material things, spoiling them with spurts of focused attention, but it remains profoundly hostile to the young.

Eric, who sent the link, writes:

Cars and car seats have been around a while. Is this a new problem? I don’t recall hearing about it in my parent’s day.

Laura writes:

That’s right. I don’t remember hearing about a single case like this when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. People had more children back then and the likelihood of a single child being in the back seat alone, ferried back and forth between home and day care was remote.

Eric writes:

Well, one risk they didn’t mention was the child and driver would be alone. Two adults would check each other, and if you are grabbing one kid, you are going to grab all of them. The older ones would holler if left alone.

Laura writes:

All of these cases involve an adult alone with a single child. I remember reading once of a grandfather who was taking a child to day care and forgot him. He was tired and distracted.

James P. writes:

You were right – that story was almost too upsetting to read. I feel physically sick after reading it. I remember those stories about people leaving infants in their cars, because a couple of them happened in the Washington area where I live. I have also seen some heartbreaking stories about people accidentally running over children.

I noticed how often the cell phone was a factor, i.e., the parents were talking on the phone instead of thinking about and interacting with the child. It really only takes a moment of inattention for a dreadful, preventable tragedy to occur.

Lydia Sherman writes:

I wrote this piece on April 11th after observing yet another car with children unattended.

Laura writes:

Lydia advises parents never to leave a child alone in the car, even when he is napping. My husband and I once returned home from an outing with our young son and he was asleep in the back seat. He was so tired that we decided to leave him briefly in the car in our driveway instead of waking him. It was a big mistake. He woke up right away and was terrified. We did not leave him for long, but he never forgot it.  

Lawrence Auster writes:

What explains this sub-human behavior by parents? It seems that everyone in our society is more and more distracted today, and that parents leaving their children in hot cars to die is but the most extreme extension of this common syndrome.

J. in Brooklyn writes:

There’s one angle I believe Weingarten touches on that deserves to be emphasized:

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s,  car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could  kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the  back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

That item synergizes with the  two-career family disastrously. Your post provides much needed amplification on this.

Kimberly writes:

This is gross. I couldn’t possibly forget my babies in the car! They are a PART of me! Especially a young baby. The problem is that women aren’t in breastfeeding relationships with their little ones. You can’t forget about your baby when you feel your milk coming in regularly. Not that you could anyhow, if you were in the habit of caring for your child. It’s tragic.

I wonder if anyone walked by, and just figured it was none of their business to say anything. I bet it’s more likely that a dog in a car on a warm day would be reported.




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