Any of Us Could Be the Parent With a Hot Car Death

It’s almost summer and that means gearing up to read about the tragedies of children left in hot cars and the Internet crucifying parents for being so careless with life’s most important gift. It sickens me, every time I come across these articles, both for what was undoubtedly immense suffering from these children and for the parents who will have to live with that one horrible mistake for the rest of their lives.

“I would never forget my own child was in the backseat of my car.”

“These parents deserve to die in a locked car for what they did to their kids.”

“If you can’t even remember your own kid is in the backseat, you don’t deserve to be a parent.”

How many times have we seen these comments floating around social media when a shock like this happens? We are told after every hot car death about new ways to prevent these events from occurring—anywhere to sticking your shoe in the back seat with your child (”You’re telling me parents have to put their shoe back there to remember they have a precious child sitting there as well?”) to new app developers coming up with technology to beep when you forget to take your baby out (”Only idiots need an app to remind them their child is back there!”)

What’s interesting about this whole debate is that blame is always assigned to the parents. It’s their fault. They should have remembered, but apparently, some just aren’t cut out for the constant vigilance that is parenthood.

I came across an article discussing the science behind kids and hot car deaths and not only was I not surprised to see that it’s not a mother or father just being horrible, but it actually made a lot of sense. And therefore the exact reason we need the shoes and apps to remind us we have our kids in the backseat.

According to the article, which tells of the death of a one-year-old little girl after her father left her in the backseat of his car, the whole family was running late to work. Because the child’s father was flustered trying to make it to work on time, when he approached the T-intersection where the daycare was on the left, he turned right—his usual way to work—and his daughter was still in the car seat.

In the article, Dr. David Diamond, a professor of psychology, is quoted as saying, “We will all experience when we have a plan to do something in the future and then we forget that plan.” As a parent to a toddler, my heart leaped at that statement.

How many times have I walked down to the basement, intending to get something, and then completely forgetting why I was down there in first place? Too many times to count. How many times was I rushing through an email to an editor and said something like, “Thanks so mcuh!”? Embarrassingly, several times.

The point is not to compare these little instances with the death of my child. Nothing in the world could compare to that. Dr. Diamond goes on to explain that essentially our brains go on autopilot sometimes, like when we’re driving home and we know we need to stop at the store, but we end up just driving home without realizing it because it’s what we always do. And he goes on to say that forgetting to go to the store isn’t the same as forgetting a child in the backseat, but you can’t always escape what your brain naturally does sometimes.

So when a parent is rushing to work, out of their norm, and they aren’t the one that usually takes the child to daycare, they may just go on autopilot, going from home to work like normal. If that child is being very quiet in the backseat, it’s the perfect set up to forget they are even there. Diamond goes on to explain that, “they did not stop at daycare on the way but [the] brain creates a false memory that the child was at daycare. If the child isn’t in the car that child must be where the child belongs, and the parents go to work with absolute certainty the child is safe.”

When a parent forgets a child is in the car, it’s because of a break in the routine. And any one of us, no matter how careful we think we are, could have this happen to us. Yes, even you.

The most dangerous thing about this is we always think it won’t happen to us. But instead of touting this with absolute certainty, we’re better off to never assume anything. Never assume your child will stay with you in a crowd and never assume you’re immune to forgetting your child in a car. Try the app. Stick the sandal or purse in the backseat this summer. Humble yourself that while your child is the most important thing in the world to you, you can still make a mistake. It just might make all the difference.