Save Our Kids-Let's Admit We're Human
Parents, we can prevent hot car deaths, but we have to get humble.
Summer is here, and my heart is breaking again. In the past few days more children have died of heat stroke after being left alone in hot cars. So far this year 24 kids have died. Like in past summers, I’m asking myself, “What can be done?”
I’m not the only one asking this question. As of this writing 819 children have died in this country since 1998 after being left in automobiles whose interiors heated up to 120 degrees or hotter in a matter of minutes. Last year saw 52 deaths, the most ever recorded in one year. The website that tracks hot car deaths NoHeatstroke.org reports that it has happened “to the kids of even the best parents of all socioeconomic and racial groups. The list includes: Teachers, Hospital Administrator, Social worker Police officer, Dentist, Judge, Barber, School Principal, Lawyer, Waiter, Engineer, Coach, Accountant, Secretary, Firefighter, University Researcher, Childcare Provider, Barista, Tradesman, Student.”
These kids lived in all parts of the country (even the relatively cooler north), and the circumstances surrounding the tragedies were often eerily similar: In 1999 a rocket scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia forgot to drop his son off at day care and left him locked in his car at work. Last year a Tennessee man forgot to drop his daughter off at daycare before heading out of town on a business trip. Earlier this month, a Kansas mother arrived home from a baby shower and was so drowsy she stumbled inside and fell asleep, leaving her three-month old in the car outside.
I think of the times when my kids were little and so many important events slipped my mind. How many times did I forget to take them to swimming lessons or soccer practice or their best friend’s birthday party? Too many to count, and each time I was baffled at why I forgot. Then there were all those times when my wife and I decided to meet somewhere and then take one car together to an event, only to get all the way home afterward, forgetting to retrieve the car we left parked miles away.
What does that have to do with kids dying in hot cars? In the past twenty years, hundreds of parents have asked the same question we did. “How did that happen?” Sometimes it was from parental neglect or worse, but more than half the time the reason was the same as ours. They forgot.
We all forget things, but usually not with such tragic consequences. Human memory expert Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer for Small Business Trends that our short-term memory can only recall about seven things in the span of about thirty seconds. If we don’t store one of those items in our long-term memory, it gets lost. She said that multitasking is often to blame. Since our brain has to “reset” every time we switch tasks, we lose focus. It’s the reason we miss that turn off the freeway. It’s the reason we forget to bring the bag of groceries in from the car after returning from the supermarket. It’s the reason we forget where we’ve put our car keys. In a Huffington Post article, neuroscientist Lisa Genova says, “It actually isn’t a memory problem, it’s an attention problem. You’re doing five things at once and you never actually paid attention to where you put them (your keys) in the first place.”
I am not comparing lost keys to dying children. What I am comparing are the reasons both happen. When parents forget a child in a vehicle, it is usually because they are juggling a number of thoughts or tasks at once.
Well-meaning people might suggest, “You need to focus; you need to think more about what you’re doing.” But the act of driving is itself an exercise in multi-tasking. Add to that the various and inescapable random thoughts that press in about work, finances or relationships, throw in a little sleep deprivation or unconventional schedule, and distraction is almost inevitable. A recent USA Today article quotes David Diamond, psychology professor at the University of South Florida, who focuses on cognitive neuroscience, and has researched what he has named the "Forgotten Baby Syndrome." He says that even caring competent parents are vulnerable to such a “syndrome” when habits take over and the parent switches over to mental autopilot.
But I believe the problem goes even deeper, because many parents are reluctant to admit that it could happen to them. As a parent, I understand that. I love my kids and grandkids; I would die for them. I might even kill for them. I also know that, like most people, I forget things. But forgetting where I put my car keys doesn’t make me a bad driver. Forgetting to take my kids to soccer practice doesn’t mean I don’t love them. Likewise, I do not devalue my children or grandchildren or my love for them if I admit that in my increasingly cluttered and stressful life, I am capable of forgetting one in the car, especially one who is sleeping or in a rear-facing car seat. The experts at HealthyChildren.org say, “Any parent or caregiver, even a very loving and attentive one, can forget that a child is in the back seat. Being especially busy or distracted or having a change from the usual routine increases the risk.” This truth hit home to me recently when I learned that a close friend of mine, sleep-deprived and driving a different vehicle from her own, left her infant child in the back seat as she went into a supermarket. Minutes later, horrified at her mistake, she ran back to the car to fortunately find her child unharmed. I know this woman. She is one of the most caring and cautious parents I have ever met. But “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” is real.
Yet many of us have the opinion that, when it comes to our kids, a penchant toward forgetfulness equates irresponsibility. When I posted about this on my Facebook page, that opinion came through loud and clear in the comments. One follower said, “If you are stupid enough to forget your child, you have NO business being a parent!” Another went a step further. “Parents should be held accountable,” she said. “Murder One. There is NO EXCUSE.”
I contend that, as passionate and well-meaning as these comments might be, they actually illustrate the problem, because such opinions reinforce the idea that even the possibility of a parental memory lapse makes one a bad parent, or something worse. No parent wants to think of himself/herself as neglectful, so instead of admitting our humanness and actively putting preventative measures in place, most of us think our caring instincts are prevention enough. But I believe that as long as that’s all we rely on, kids will continue to die. I agree with those who have studied the problem who say that under the right circumstances, every parent is capable of accidentally leaving a child unattended in a car. And since we can’t always control our circumstances, we need to pay attention to the things that we can control. To save our kids, HealthyChildren.org recommends the following actions:
1. Always check the back seat and make sure all children are out of the car before locking it and walking away.
2. Avoid distractions while driving, especially cell phone use.
3. Be extra alert when there is a change in your routine, like when someone else is driving your child or you take a different route to work or child care.
4. Have your child care provider call if your child is more than ten minutes late.
5. Put your cell phone, bag or purse in the back seat so you check the back seat when you arrive at your destination.
6. If someone else is driving your child, always check to make sure he has arrived safely.
To many, these measures will seem like overkill, but some of the same people wouldn’t think twice about setting an alarm or audible reminder on their smart phone so they don’t miss an appointment. Aren’t our children worth a similar reminder? Can we parents swallow our pride and admit that we’re human, that when we are stressed or distracted or sleep-deprived we don’t always think clearly? Can we agree that it is not an assumption of cruelty, but rather an act of love to take actions that protect our children from our own weaknesses? Let’s put our kids before our egos and take some real steps to prevent another tragedy.
© Nick Walker 2019
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