Monday, August 15, 2016

Fatal Forgetfulness

Question: What kind of person could ever forget their child in the car?



Answer: Me. You.  Anyone.


Already this year, 27 children have perished in hots cars, which is one more than died in all of last year. On average, there are 37 hot car deaths in the US per year. We usually only hear about the fatalities, or some of the very near misses. Many, many more times through fortunate circumstances or some last minute reminder, children are forgotten but recovered quickly and unharmed.

Every time one of these heartbreaking stories hits the news, the comments are overwhelmingly angry and accusatory, along the lines of: 

Someone should lock them in the car on a hot summer day!

Forgot? Yeah right! I bet they just wanted to get rid of the child.

I bet they didn't forget their cell phone.

Of course, such tragic loss comes as a shock to any parent. We all want to think WE could never do such a thing. By condemning the "guilty," we tell ourselves that great parents such as ourselves could NEVER forget their baby in a car. 

But the truth is, anyone is capable of forgetting their child in a car. Doctors, lawyers, and a rocket scientist have all made the same fatal mistake that the Wal-Mart employee made in Texas yesterday. Moms and dads, rich and poor, old and young of every race are equally likely to forget their child, because it has nothing to do with our parenting, but all to do with the human brain. 

Our brains are designed to operate largely by habit. By not having to waste much thought on familiar processes, our brains are freed up to respond more efficiently to unfamiliar issues that arise. This habit loop is a crucial aspect of how our brains work and process data without burning out. The part of the brain responsible for recall ("I have the baby with me today") is switched off, while we operate on the part of the brain that runs on habit (like a typical commute).

For instance, the first time you back out of your driveway in a new vehicle, it will take all of your concentration and focus. By the time you have done it for months, you never even give it a single thought. Your habit loop takes over the minute you start the engine, and you can back out of the driveway and go clear across town on a familiar drive (such as a commute) without having any recollection of it or any of the details surrounding it. This is the same reason why you might ask your husband to stop at the store on the way home from work, and he completely forgets until he walks in the front door and is reminded the moment he sees you. He knew he wanted to stop at the store, but habit took over and he followed his usual routine.

Tragedy strikes when there is a perfect storm - a change in routine (such as Dad taking the baby when he doesn't usually do so), while there are other stress factors that occupy the active part of his brain (an important business call, stress at work, etc.), and all reminders fall through. He KNOWS that he is supposed to drop the baby off at day care that day because mom can't do it, but the minute he sits down in the driver seat, his brain goes on autopilot. Unless the baby cries or in some other way reminds him that she is there, he might forget about her, and tragedy ensues. 

I have personally known and heard of great parents who have forgotten their child in a car briefly and thankfully without suffering harm. It seems that almost every time I talk about this topic with parents, they suddenly recall a time they almost forgot their child in the car. It has nothing to do with what kind of a parent they are. It's simply a terrible error stemming from the way the human brain works. An attitude of "That could never happen to me!" is a very dangerous one to have. 

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Some safety protocols that help prevent a tragedy are:

- Make a habit of visually checking every car seat, every time before closing the car doors. 

- Teach your older children to make a habit of checking for siblings in their rows before exiting the vehicle. Teach them to be extra vigilant when they are in the care of someone besides their main care giver.

- When traveling with just a baby, leave your purse/briefcase in the back by their car seat, and leave an item of the baby (like a blanket) in the spot you normally keep your purse. When you get to where you are going, this will jog your memory if necessary. It is not recommended to have a permanent reminder up front near the driver, such as a decal hanging from the mirror, because it will soon become so familiar that it will become part of the habit to see it, making it ineffective. 

- If your child goes to daycare, have a plan that they call you if your child does not show up on a day that they are expected. 

- Don't be afraid to call/text and check in with any non-regular care giver. 

Some other excellent resources are Kids and Cars and http://noheatstroke.org/. Their websites have a lot of great information and helpful articles. If you like their Facebook page, you will get plenty of reminders in your newsfeed to keep the safety of children around cars at the forefront of your mind. This article has some insightful stats. The book "The Power of Habit" has a whole chapter dedicated to this topic, and explains the underlying science well. It is a great read, I highly recommend it!

Parents whose children died in a hot car already have their lives destroyed by guilt. Let's not compound it, and let's not fool ourselves into thinking it could never happen to us. I doubt there is a parent who could honestly claim that in all their years of raising a child, there was never a situation that could have turned out far worse if it were not for the grace of God. Remember: There but for the grace of God go I (and you).

23 comments:

  1. It is a scary thought, and forming proactive habits really is the best thing you can do to make sure it never happens to you.

    Thank goodness I have never left my child in the car, but I have a similar analogy that happened to me not too long ago. For most of my adult life I have carried a firearm. I am very careful about how I store this gun, how I carry it, where I leave it, etc. I pride myself on being a responsible gun owner (and still do) who has developed safe habits and practices.

    One day though, as I was getting into the car I deviated from my normal routine. In a rush help my wife load some things into the car I set my pistol in its holster on the roof, thinking I would retrieve it before I got back inside. I didn't. I drove several miles across town with a handgun rattling around on the roof of the car, completely unaware. By some miracle it didn't fall off, and no one noticed it or stole it while I was in the store grocery shopping for several hours. When I spotted it laying there on the roof in plain sight as I came out of the store my heart sank. I couldn't believe I had done something so foolish and irresponsible. My mind raced with all of the possible scenarios; what if it fell of while I was driving, what if someone picked it up and hurt themselves, what if I was pulled over by the police?

    It immediately made me see parents who forger their children in the car in a different light. Sometimes a simple disruption in our routine such as a phone call, a stranger interrupting, a commotion of some kind, etc., can undo all of the good habits we have in an instant. It's important to be aware of that, and develop back up habits as a contingency. I never leave things on the roof of the car anymore, but needless to say I have developed a habit of checking the roof anyway...

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  2. I was new to being a working mom when I got divorced. (Long story, but it really WAS for the best in the long run) My daughter was four and my son was one. My daughter was sick, so I brought her to her dad's house and was supposed to drop my son off at day care. I noticed him, fast asleep, in the car when I exited the car in the work parking lot. I almost forgot him. I was overwhelmed by so many things, but it was that tiny change in routine (dropping my daughter off with her dad) that almost caused a tragedy. We do need to be more forgiving of other parents.

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  3. My mother talks about this all the time. Whenever she takes the grandchildren she has a routine of taking her left shoe off (as a purse or something, you may forget- but never your shoe!) We both believe it could happen to anyone and I appreciate this article, as does she.

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  4. This article showed your human side, and I thank you for that. Normally my blood pressure soars as I read your name-calling, evil-spewing hate.

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    1. Then why are you here?

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    2. Yes indeed,why read a blog that you actively dislike?

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    3. I thought exactly the same thing.

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    4. I agree why did you read her blog

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  5. I had his exact thought recently too after hearing about the 27 deaths. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

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  6. I never left my kids in the car, but I did forget on a few occasions to either strap them in their car seat or strap the car seat into the car. I thank God that I did not get into an accident on the way home with my kids unsecured. You are very correct in saying "that there before the grace of God go you and or I". I think this phrase often when I start to judge someone unfairly.

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  7. Thank you. I can't believe what these parents go through, and you are right...it can be due to a simple error on their part; a change in routine, for example. You mentioned very good ways to be aware, so that this doesn't happen again to anyone. Good tips.

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  8. Not related to the post at all (though I enjoyed your compassionate stand on a heartbreaking subject), but I literally walked past you and your husband an hour ago in the North End. So if by chance remember a redhead in white shorts staring openly my apologies.

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    1. Oh, how funny!!! You should have stopped us! There were so many people there this afternoon. We came into Boston early this morning on the all-nighter and walked from the parking garage near Faneuil Hall to the USS Constitution and back, stopping for the sights along the way. Such a cool place! Reminds me of the Old Country.

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    2. I just noticed the time of your comment - you must have seen us in the morning when we were heading out. My husband did point out a red head to me, saying there were lots of Irish in Boston. I wonder if that was you :)

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    3. Had I not been late to work I absolutely would have. I almost went back, but decided not to bother strangers when I had places to be

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  9. It can happen to anyone.

    Have you heard of the shoe idea? Before you start driving, you take off your left shoe and put it in the backseat. When you get to your destination, it forces you to see the backseat and remember your kid.

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  10. Hello Zsuzsanna, I am not used to using this website and cant seem to figure out how to submit a question. Could you please point me in the right direction? I could use some advice with a personal struggle pertaining to faith. Thanks!

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  11. THANK YOU for this. When I saw the title I thought this would maybe be about bad parents leaving their children in hot cars. I can't believe some of the comments on these news articles. HORRIFIC. What you said about the human brain is so true. I do a sweep of the back seat every time j get out of the car, even if I know the children aren't there. Just so tragic. It wouldn't happen to you until it does.

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  12. I never forgot the baby but was terrified I would considering how many times I walk in the kitchen and realize I have forgotten why I was there to begin with. The other day I left the grocery store and chanted "bank bank bank" until I got to the bank. Otherwise I would have forgotten to stop there until I drove in my driveway.

    I like to say I never say never because as soon as I do, the "never" happens to me.

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  13. Maybe some of the deaths were accidental, Im not buying that they all are.

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  14. I've taken a lot of heat from saying the same thing. That could have certainly been me!

    My oldest child had severe colic. She would start crying at 7 pm and go until 1 am most nights. I was a zombie every day. There were days I was so tired that I could not remember if I dropped her off at the nursery on my way to work. I would reach in the back seat to try to feel for her in her car seat. One day, I even pulled off the interstate to check because I was so dazed.

    Yes, that absolutely can happen to anyone. Those who think otherwise are very mistaken.

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  15. This was different then I had expected. Your compassion for people and the obvious fact that we're all human and we make mistakes amazes me. If you guys are ever in Michigan again I'd love to say hi😁

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  16. I'm so glad you addressed this issue. I once forgot my 8 month old in our van,it was a short amount of time but still the same. The day I forgot her it was a hot day and I was following my usual routine of dropping my son off and stopping at the store on the way back home. The only difference this time, I had my daughter with me. I usually DID NOT take her with me.
    My van at the time had one door that opened to the back, on the passenger side. She was on the driver's side behind me. The windows were all tinted and opened out, not down. They were open but because they were tinted I couldn't see her when I got out. She was sleeping, so she wasn't making any noise. All these things added up can make it possible to forget your child in a vehicle.

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Your KINDLY WORDED, constructive comments are welcome, whether or not they express a differing opinion. All others will be deleted without second thought.