Yesterday I parked outside Countdown, went in to the service desk to pick up my groceries (previously ordered on the internet) and took them back to the car. As I was putting them into the boot a lady from the car next to mine approached and asked me if I’d had someone else watching my children while I did this.
You see, I had committed the cardinal parenting sin. I left children alone in a parked car.
I was gone for less than six minutes, I could (and did) watch the car the whole time through the glass front of the shop, it was the middle of the afternoon with plenty of people around and when I came back Noah and Cassia were laughing away uproariously over whatever probably toilet-themed conversation they’d had going.
This lady was very polite. She opened with the question about someone watching them from another car to give me the benefit of the doubt. When I said no, but I was only gone for a handful of minutes she said that would be long enough for someone to take them.
Really, I said? Really? When was the last time she had heard of children being abducted by a stranger in Te Awamutu? Well, she said, there’s always that once.
Children in New Zealand, I said, tend to be in danger only from people they know. Random abduction, let alone from the well-populated Countdown carpark in Te Awamutu – a rich farming town with very little noticeable crime at all – doesn’t happen often enough for it to be something that I’m fearful of in my everyday life. I’m not bringing my children up to be scared of the world in general.
She was not convinced. She left thinking, I imagine, that I was one of those irresponsible people who shouldn’t be allowed to have children at all.
What I should have said, what I wish I’d thought of saying, was that it was a good thing that she did. Yes, I was unrepentant and probably didn’t respond the way she hoped, but she was certainly right and brave to bring it up with me and I hope she’s not put off doing it in the future because there are many children left in cars in very different circumstances and some of them do need the help of strangers.
I did think about what she’d said though. Of course I did. You can’t have someone show such unambiguous disapproval of your actions without reflecting on whether they might have a point.
The conclusion I came to is that I’m very comfortable with what I did and I will not be changing that particular behaviour. Before you all frantically Google CYPS’ dobbing-in hotline number, let me explain.
It’s about applying some rationality to evaluating a risk. When I was a new mother all those moons ago I did as this lady expected me to be doing now: I worried about everything that could possibly happen to my baby, no matter how unlikely, and for good measure I worried about plenty of things that couldn’t possibly happen, equally. And it just about did my head in.
I know it’s a natural thing for new mothers to do. My first baby had the endearing habit of waking every 45 minutes in the night and every 20 minutes during the day for the first six weeks. Then, she suddenly got the memo – it might have been the many threats of leaving her in a cardboard box on the steps of the local church that did it – and started sleeping through the night. Not me, though. No. I was still waking every 45 minutes convinced that the lack of crying meant that she’d died in her sleep. I would lie awake listening to the silence making deals with God. Please, just don’t let her die until my mum’s seen her (we lived half a world away at the time). Just let her be all right until she’s met my dad. I’m sure anyone who’s had a baby knows the kind of thing I’m talking about. Much later when she was a big fat bouncing thing I remember having a meltdown because I’d lost count of the number of scoops of formula I’d put in her bottle. It was a huge disaster. If there was one less she would wake hungry in the night and her whole sleeping pattern would be wrecked forever! If there was one more it said right there on the tin she’d get dehydrated and die! And no, I couldn’t just tip it all out and start again because have you seen the price of this stuff?
Not unusual for a new parent. But it’s not sustainable to latch onto every tiny possibility of doom, however remote, and try and control for it out of anxiety. That’s how you get to be a nervous wreck and not enjoy the ride. I have seen this happen to people. I have seen parents make life-altering decisions out of fear and miss out on all kinds of wonderfulness as a result.
Somewhere along the way I got to realising that not all risk is created equal and you might as well concentrate on the ones that matter. Risk is not some airy-fairy thing where if it’s a possibility for someone somewhere in the world then you should worry that it might happen to you. It is quantifiable.
If I’m going to lose my children on a supermarket trip it’s far – hugely – more likely to be in a road accident than by abduction. So I take every possible precaution, every single time, to mitigate that risk. In twelve years and four children I have never driven any of them so much as a metre without them being properly secured in the appropriate child restraint. Even my older children, one of whom is almost as tall as me, sit in the back seat unless there is absolutely no alternative, which is very rare, because there is very clear data showing that they’re more likely to survive an accident there. There is also clear data showing that they need to be in a booster seat until they reach a certain height. Amy and Daniel were both ten and a half when they reached this height and they sat in a booster seat on every journey until that day. I believe the risk of harm on the road is real and I take it very seriously.
When you get to the issue of random abduction, though, the risk level changes a bit. Most people my age or older will remember Kirsa Jensen and Teresa Cormack back in the eighties. Both horrific cases, absolutely. But few and far between. I can’t recall off the top of my head any cases in recent years – decades, even – that didn’t turn out to be perpetrated by someone who knew the victim. Even then, most abducted children are taken not from roadsides or carparks but from their own homes. And I do have conditions when I leave my kids in the car. I wouldn’t leave Noah or Cassia if it was just the one of them. I would certainly never leave a baby, or a toddler too young to have fluent language in case they did happen to need help. It has to be broad daylight and with plenty of people around. I wouldn’t leave them outside Pak ‘n’ Save because you can’t see outside from inside so easily. In fact I probably wouldn’t do it anywhere except our local Countdown or the village Four Square. And let me point out that everyone leaves their kids in the car outside the Four Square. If I go there after school I leave all the windows down and the kids happily chat with their friends in the cars on both sides whose parents have also left the windows down. It’s an important part of village social life for the little ones.
While it would be nice to be able to bring up our kids to feel that the world is a safe place, in fact it isn’t so that wouldn’t be doing them any favours. The next best thing, I feel, is to teach them to look for danger in the right places. This was recognised some years ago in the education system when someone realised that the stranger danger strategies that we were taught in the eighties weren’t very useful because the vast majority of deliberate harm that comes to children comes from people they know and probably live with. The curriculum was replaced by the far more relevant Keeping Ourselves Safe programme which aims to teach skills that can help children in any unsafe situation, and to empower the child to protect themselves rather than teaching them to run and hide from the evil man offering a Crunchie bar. (I remember thinking, oooh, a Crunchie bar! I would definitely give that serious consideration! Which wasn’t the aim of the lesson, I’m pretty sure).
I don’t want my children growing up thinking the world as a whole is a scary place. People like the lady in the carpark would probably say the place for letting them feel safe is at home and the time for teaching them wariness is out in public. Is home so safe though? We have a trampoline like everyone else, probably including her. Those things are not safe by any measure. They account for an average of 160 ACC claims a week, some of which are for permanent spinal injuries, and statistically it doesn’t make much difference whether you have pads and nets or not. My children are more likely to come to harm on the trampoline in their own back yard than in six minutes in a car at Countdown by a large margin, but I still let them use it.
Because we live in the country my children don’t have the option of walking to school but if we lived in Te Awamutu that’s what they’d be doing. Noah is seven which is old enough to walk to school without me, depending on the distance. I have no idea whether Carpark Lady would frown upon that too but plenty of people do allow seven-year-olds to walk to school without an adult and I’d argue that, because there are usually roads to cross, they’d be in more danger than Noah was while sitting in the car at Countdown. People don’t seem to frown on letting kids walk to school, though; in fact there’s kind of a thing going on recently about moving away from driving them everywhere and letting them go for it on their own. Which I whole-heartedly approve of. If it was practical for us I’d teach Noah all I could about road safely on the daily route and let him go. Would I be nervous? Yes – because of the roads, not because of the possibility of abduction. Would I still encourage it? Of course, because you can’t live in fear of every scary possibility. You weigh it up, you do what you can and you cross your fingers for the rest.
Sometimes the things that sound the most scary are not the things we should be the most scared of. I have read of several cases recently of people being injured by out-of-control cars hitting them on a footpath, including one this very week. In that time I have read of zero cases of stranger abduction. So if I had taken Noah and Cassia out of the car with me, along the walkway on the edge of the carpark and into the supermarket, statistically I would have been putting them at greater risk than by leaving them strapped in their seats in the car. But would Carpark Lady have thought this was a good reason not to do it? No, because as parents we have a far greater instinctive fear of our children being stolen by a stranger than of them being hit by a car. Not that we would wish that on them either, but it’s not as dark and mysterious so it’s not as terrifying.
I think this may be partly why the anti-vaccination movement gains the traction that it does. In New Zealand something like 8% of us are not vaccinated and some of those will be children of parents who aren’t against it but just haven’t bothered. So it’s really a very small minority but they certainly punch above their weight in terms of publicity for their cause. I’m sure there are many reasons but it seems to me that partly it’s because the supposed harm that comes from vaccinations is just more scary. There are no credible studies linking vaccinations conclusively to either autism or leukaemia, but there don’t need to be. Just the suggestion is enough. Given the choice between an incredibly remote possibility of cancer and a far more plausible chance of measles or mumps, it’s a very natural instinct to choose the mumps because it’s just less frightening. I absolutely get that. I vaccinated my children because I can read and think and observe, but I really did have to fight against the little niggle in my mind that said, autism! So much worse than measles! So much less likely but so much scarier! In fact, truth to tell, I might have wimped out altogether except that Josh, also able to read and think and observe, has no such qualms. He’s even better at quantifying risk based on numbers than I am and doesn’t have the pesky maternal instinct thing going on.
So there you have it. I appreciate the lady in the carpark showing concern for my children and I admire her for doing what is undoubtedly the right thing in challenging me on my actions. I have thought over my reasons, which I guess was her goal, and I am satisfied with my decision. I will not be doing that particular thing any differently next time. Do I want my children to know that cars, bikes and trampolines are dangerous? Hell yes. Do I want them to feel scared of the local supermarket carpark? No. I have weighed up the risks and I’m happy that that isn’t something I need to be teaching them.
Have a safe day, and please know that I’m not looking for a debate about either my parenting skills or my opinions on vaccination. If you take issue with either of these feel free to express that but please do it on your own blog, not in the comments on mine.