Because it involves the possibility of a child dying, this deceptively simple concept is really difficult to discuss rationally. The act of leaving a kid to sit in a car while a parent does some sort of errand has been around since there’s been cars, parents, and kids. There’s been some real tragedies, but is it always wrong?

To be absolutely 100 percent safe, you could make a blanket decision and say that no, it is never, ever okay to leave a kid alone in a car. Some people I respect a great deal have said just that. But I’ll be honest — I’m not so sure it really is always such a horrific idea, and in some cases, the vigilance to find and condemn people for doing this actually make parents and children’s lives much, much worse.

Just in case anyone without kids is wondering why this is such a big deal, it’s probably worth explaining some things: kids, as much as we love them, are more often than not tiny lunatics. They have the remarkable ability to make even the simplest of activities into colossal ass-pains, and when multiple kids are involved, the ass-painery increases exponentially.

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For many kids, sleep time is an important but tenuous thing, and for many parents, if a kid falls asleep in a car, you want to let that sleeping happen no matter what, for the health of the kid, the parent, and probably crucial parts of the Earth’s nitrogen fixation cycle or something.

There’s some real quality-of-life and time management improvements that can happen if a parent is occasionally free to leave a kid in a car for 5-15 minute stretches — situations beyond mere convenience. I think most parents would at least hypothetically agree here.

Currently, the thinking on leaving a kid in a car is zero-tolerance — there’s even whole groups set up to make sure no one thinks it’s okay to leave a kid alone in a car for any length of time, in any circumstance. There’s even campaigns and pressure for people to call 911 if they see a kid alone in a car, regardless of how aware they are of how long the kid has been in there, or even the condition of the child.

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Of course, absolutely no one wants kids to die of heatstroke in a hot car. No shit. And if it’s actually hot out, don’t leave your kid in a car — that’s not rocket science. The issue here is that the whole act of letting a kid wait, safely inside a car — where they’re statistically much safer than outside the car — is completely tainted by the idiots who put their kids in real danger.

The stories about moms leaving kids in cars while they go to a bar or a job interview or gamble?Of course that’s horrible — those are terrible decisions, and they have nothing in common with a responsible parent leaving their kid in a car, on a mild day, windows partially open, as they run a 10-minute errand. It’s just not the same thing.

The emphasis on all the tragedies and worst-case scenarios is making many good parents who have left a kid in a car feel like monsters — and, I think, pretty needlessly. They wonder “what if” the car was stolen, or if somehow the heat spiked, or if a meteor hit the car, without ever really considering that, if you’re going to fret over bad, random shit happening, that can happen outside a car, or inside a store with a parent, too. All kinds of horrible shit can go down anywhere, anytime — thankfully, it usually doesn’t.

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Sure, the basic players are the same, but it’s like the difference between me taking my kid for a drive in my car and me taking my kid in my car while I drove it in an illegal street race. Same equipment, same players, same fundamental act (driving) but wildly different circumstances. One’s something any parent would do, one is the realm of an idiot who’ll end up killing his kid.

I was left in cars all the time as a kid, and it was totally fine. And I didn’t have anything nearly as cool as an iPad or something to play with. I think I amused myself watching the blinking red light on the hazard light switch of my dad’s ‘68 Beetle. Sure, it was fun, but I really wanted the Merlin my sister was hogging. Also, I never died in that car.

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My kid loves being in cars, and there’s times when I’d love to just let him chill in the car while I run into the hardware store or something. Sometimes I need to buy stuff that takes two hands to hold, and going in a store like that, full of actually dangerous tools and sharp, stabby things without a hand on him is way more dangerous than letting him chill in his car seat for 15 minutes.

If you just use your head, there should be no problem with this. Set some rules — don’t leave them in the car in weather over, say 75 degrees or so, don’t leave them in there for more than 10 or 15 minutes, whatever makes sense — and stick to that. If your errand is taking longer, leave. It’s that easy. Explain you have to get your kid — who’s going to argue? Just don’t use it as a cover for shoplifting.

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The rabid urge to penalize a parent who’s left their safe, non-heatstroking kid in a car I think helps nobody. If the kid is in danger, if they’ve been there a while, of course, do something, but otherwise, give people some space to parent in ways you might not choose to.

A few precautions on the parent’s part — say, a little sign you can hang in the window with your cell phone and a reminder that the kid isn’t abandoned could go a long way to making people relax, too.

I know this is a touchy subject, and rightly so. But I think the trend of blanket condemnation is only hurting many exasperated, otherwise good parents, and there’s far more of those than the idiots locking their kids in cars for way too long in the worst circumstances.

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I’m curious to hear your thoughts, of course, child owner/operators and otherwise. Have at it!

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