Ah, of the many perils of summer, one is the hot car. I regularly walk past a business that reminds people that their cars can get up to 140 degrees — so they shouldn’t leave their children or pets in the hot car (the business encourages them to bring both children and pets in). I’ve heard the PSAs by a local lawn & pet store (yep, those are combined) on the same thing (and you should probably buy their lawn treatment so your grass doesn’t die). I’ve even experienced this myself when I briefly left my own pup in a car while I ran into a grocery store to buy us water (on a road trip) and myself a piece of fruit. She still had some water in her bowl, which she could reach, the windows were down, and I parked us in the shade.
I should basically have made water materialize was the message I got from the concerned citizen when I returned to my car less than ten minutes later.
You know. Like magic.
I appreciate the person’s concern. My pup was panting, but in the shade. She had her water, I pointed out. I held up my new jug of water and orange. “I was only in there for a minute. I’m glad there are concerned citizens like you.”
I was furious and tried not to show it. It worked, well enough, because the person hadn’t escalated the situation (though they’d had their cell phone out, ready to call the police I’m sure. I’m glad they waited a few minutes before doing that.). The person encouraged me to be more careful and walked toward the store.
After what happened today, I consider myself lucky that that’s all that happened.
Today, I witnessed a man berating a woman who’d just stuck her (screaming) toddler in the car and closed the door. Her child had been screaming for five minutes in the place I work before she took him outside, to the sidewalk, to try and calm him down. When that didn’t work, she stuck him in the car. Not, you know, forever. But so he could scream it out a little more and so she could collect herself and her nerves. She stood next to the car and I could practically see her counting to twenty in her head. She was getting ready to leave.
A man walked out and told her it was child neglect and endangerment. He was yelling at her, and she yelled back (her nerves were understandably frazzled, imo). Things escalated quickly (both a co-worker and I stepped outside to act as witnesses and to intervene if necessary), and he decided to call the police. He knew exactly which officer would be on duty this morning (he didn’t look like a retired cop, but I don’t know that he isn’t), which seemed suspicious to me. I offered the woman, or her child, a glass of water, since they’d now be waiting for the cops. The man, after yelling again, about the particulars of child endangerment and explaining in specific detail about how the woman must not understand how she was endangering her child then left the scene, telling my co-worker (I’d returned inside to assist customers) that if the cops needed him, they had his contact information.
I saw the whole thing: the woman did not walk away from her car. She did not leave her child in the car long. She appeared to be gathering herself so that she could get in the car with a screaming child and still be a responsible driver. The man’s heart was (probably) in the right place. Children (and others, including pets) do die because they are left in hot cars. But, he made the assumption that she was a bad mother who did this often. That she didn’t understand that it would be hot in the car. That she should be able to just gracefully deal with a child who was having a complete meltdown (and in a very enclosed space, at that). That if she was a better mother, her child wouldn’t be crying (he did basically tell her this). He assumed that the only way to deal with this was to call the cops, and he refused to listen to what she was saying. He yelled because he believed that was the only way to make himself heard, and the woman yelled back because the man was clearly not hearing her.
When I spoke to the woman, I made sure to reflect what I was hearing her say: her frustration, her concerns, her anger at a stranger interfering and accusing her of being a bad mother. My goal was to de-escalate the situation as much as possible, as quickly as possible. The man accused the woman of having a temper tantrum, and said “I wonder where your kid learned it from.” (Surprisingly, this did not make things better).
At this, I asked the man to please stop, something my co-worker had already done. He accused us of being complicit in child endangerment. And while this was happening, while he was screaming at us and at the woman, the woman was also in the process of turning on the car so the air conditioning would run. She rolled down windows. She continued to yell at the man.
This was another example of a man explaining to a woman the best way to be a mother. This was a man, explaining to a woman, the best way to raise her child. This was a man who didn’t have a young child. This was a man who may or may not have ever had a young child (or primary responsibility for that child) explaining how to raise a child without temper tantrums. This was a man who was accusing a woman of acting out of line by yelling back at him when he yelled at her.
The co-worker who stayed outside with the woman until the cop came to speak to her is a mother. “I would have been furious if someone accused me of that,” she said when she returned. “There are times when you need to gather yourself while they continue to scream it out. It’s not like this was a ten minute ordeal.”
No, indeed, it wasn’t.
And that’s part of what infuriates me about the situation. The man made a lot of assumptions as he walked on the scene, and immediately escalated the situation into one that involved yelling. Another mother of a young child witnessed the whole thing — from the mother of the child in the car putting that child in the car until the cop arrived. If the man had taken even just a minute to actually ask about the situation, instead of jumping to conclusions, perhaps the entire incident could have been avoided. If the man had not assumed it was his place to explain, in (loud) condescending tones to the woman how to raise a child or how hot a car could get in the summer sun, perhaps this could have ended with an agreement that yes, it is endangerment to leave a child in a car for a prolonged period, and thank you for your concern.
But it didn’t.
The man seemed to see himself as a savior. He felt the need to mansplain to the three of us the dangers of hot cars, the perils of the situation, the abuse he thought (inaccurately) he was witnessing. He felt the need to criminalize the situation immediately instead of actually finding out what was going on — because why would he need to? He was a (white, older) man. We were younger females. We clearly didn’t know anything. We, he informed my co-worker and I, didn’t understand the situation.
Clearly this had to be true. You know, the whole younger female thing. We probably didn’t understand radiant heat, or what it was like to have a small child, or how radiant heat amplifies in an enclosed space, or how long the child had been in the car (I’m sure the man thought this was why the child was screaming), or how difficult it is to be a white man and have to call the cops and know exactly who to ask for.
Life must have been really tough for him this morning.
I appreciated his concern. I want to believe his heart was in the right place. I wish he’d acted differently.