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When it comes to kids and cars, there's plenty to worry about. When we put our children in the car - to bring them to the doctor, or drop them off at school, or take them to visit Grandma - we're putting them at risk. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 and over, and they're second only to drowning for children ages 1 through 4. 

Yet I don't know a single parent who refuses to put his or her kids in the car. The risk is very small, and we do our best to minimize it - most notably by carefully following evidence-based carseat recommendations. As a society, we have accepted that it is reasonable for children to ride in cars despite the risk of accidents.
Why, then, have so many people reached the opposite conclusion when it comes to leaving children alone in cars: that it is NEVER reasonable to do so, even for a moment?
Recently, on the way to a playdate in my tiny New Hampshire town, I stopped at a country store to pick up a snack. My two kids were happy and relaxed. I looked around the store's small parking lot, which sits astride two roads and near a three-way intersection. I reasoned that my kids would be safer in the car than in the parking lot. It was a mild day; I left the windows open and the air conditioning running, and I dashed inside. (Until what happened next, I was mostly feeling guilty about letting my car idle.) When I returned to my car a moment later, a man I'd never seen before confronted me and told me he was going to call the police because I had left my children alone in the car. 
It was terrifying. I've read the stories about mothers who ended up facing criminal charges or having their kids taken away because they left them in the car or at a park. Even though I hadn't broken any laws and, most important, I had made what I continue to believe was the safer choice for my kids, a stranger tried to punish me. He couldn't have been concerned about my children; he was talking to me, steps from my car where they sat contentedly listening to music. No, he didn't want to keep my children out of trouble. He wanted to get me into it. He wanted to make me feel ashamed and afraid. I had no way of knowing whether he would call the police and how they'd respond. I had no way of knowing if he had taken pictures or videos of my children that he would later post online. It was an intensely personal invasion.
For awhile, I was so shaken by this experience that I told hardly anybody beside my husband. Then I read about recent research finding that people's moral disapproval of leaving kids in the car makes them believe it's risky. I shared it on Facebook. I was overwhelmed by the response - both from other moms who had experiences similar to mine, and from moms who basically said "there are times when I think my kids are better off in the car, but I don't leave them because I'm afraid of what happened to you." 
That's just not right. You can vary any of a thousand details about my story, and it would make my decision objectively unreasonable. Weather too hot or too cold; kids able to unbuckle their car seats; an unsafe or unfamiliar location; a longer errand - any of these should and would have changed my decision. But within the bounds of reasonableness, parents should be able to use their best judgment about their kids' safety and well-being without fear of harassment or intimidation by strangers who would have reached a different conclusion for themselves. Parents certainly shouldn't be forced into less safe choices by perceptions of risk that aren't based in fact.
We should all look out for each other's children. If you see a child in distress in a hot car or some other unsafe situation, call 911. If you want to help kids who have been abused or neglected, volunteer at an organization like New Hampshire's Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). But if you want to report a mom who ran inside to pay cash at the gas station, call your own mother instead. She'll probably tell you to mind your own business.

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