A New Hampshire mom was arrested this week after she left her 2-year-old son unattended in the car in a Target parking lot.
Dina Dambaeva says that she was only popping into the store to return something, an errand she thought would take no more than five minutes. So she left the car with its engine running, little Matthew strapped happily in his car seat. Those five minutes ended up stretching into a half hour. Police arrived and placed Dina under arrest, charged with endangering the welfare of a child.
While Matthew didn’t appear to be in distress, police explained, “Anytime you have child of that age, alone, and unattended, there is a ton of risks that can happen to them.”
However, the 34-year-old mom insists that her son was “safe, he was fine, he was happy,” adding, “I thought it was going to take five minutes, I didn’t know it was going to take more. I’m not the worst mother in the world, I just did one tiny mistake, and people judge me for that.”
A local news station interviewed other parents at the shopping outlet that day, and there did seem to be some judgement being thrown Dina’s way. “I would never leave my child in the car, no, there’s no excuse,” insisted one mom, while another said she’d worry about “someone breaking in and maybe abducting the child.”
Dina does have some support, though: Lenore Skenazy, founder of the blog Free-Range Kids, is solidly in her corner. Writing of the incident, she notes that leaving a child unattended in a car isn’t considered an offence in Dina’s native country of Russia.
“We cannot keep arresting people for something very rare and unpredictable that could have happened,” Lenore argues. “Otherwise we could start arresting parents for letting their kids walk down the stairs (they could have fallen!) or eat food (they could have choked!).”
The “free range vs. helicopter parenting” debate is not a new one. Should a 7-year-old be allowed to walk through his neighborhood all on his own? Would you let your 9-year-old hang out at the park for a few hours unattended? Is it ever okay to leave a child alone in a car?
Almost every time these questions have been asked here on the BabyCenter blog in the past, I’ve sided with the maligned parent. I’ve argued that while it’s important to protect our kids, it’s also important not to get swept up in largely unfounded fear and hysteria. When my kids walk to the nearest playground on their own, my worry isn’t that they’ll be kidnapped, but that my injury-prone youngest will fall and scrape her knee.
I agree with Lenore Skenazy that arresting this mom seems an extreme response. We all make mistakes. On the other hand, I do think there are legitimate concerns about a 2-year-old being alone in a car, where his parent couldn’t see him, for 30 minutes. And I don’t think those concerns should be downplayed. That’s a really long time to a toddler. Abduction or bodily harm isn’t really at the top of my mind, but what if he had been scared? What if he had been crying, or screaming?
True, these are “what ifs,” and those don’t usually make the most convincing arguments. While I still feel that I lean toward the free range side of parenting, I do think there are limits.