Last night was taco night, and I had made a terrible mistake.
I thought I had bought all the necessary provisions a few days before, but alas, I hadn’t. My daughter reminded me that any taco night worth the name was going to require refried beans, so on our way back from an outing to the beach at Oak Mountain State Park, we stopped by Publix. I asked the kids if they wanted to go in with me or stay in the car. They all decided they wanted to stay in the car.
So I let them.
Now, if you form your ideas about risk based on what you read in the newspaper and what you see on the evening news, then you’re perhaps rightly terrified about the risk we took. The streets and parking lots of America, after all, are crawling with kidnappers and sexual predators and murderers and worse just watching and waiting for you to let your guard down for just a second so they can come along and snatch up the kids. Media outlets are all too happy to recount every parent’s worse nightmare in gruesome detail over and over and over again. It draws eyeballs and clicks.
I went into the store, found the refried beans with the help of a couple of people who were stocking shelves, paid for my purchase, and left. What I found when I returned to the parking lot will shock you.
The kids were still in the car. They hadn’t been abducted. They hadn’t even been approached by a stranger offering candy or asking for help finding a lost dog. They were telling each other spooky stories based in part on “Goosebumps” books we had been reading and videos they had been watching online.
The simple fact is that our kids are a lot safer than you might think based on what gets reported. Note the problem, though: people get their ideas about the risks they likely face from the news, but what makes something newsworthy is the fact that it’s unlikely. The stories filling the headlines are “man bites dog” stories that are newsworthy precisely because they’re rare. Could it happen? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely.
Is there some risk associated with leaving your kids in the parking lot while you run into the store to grab a couple of cans of beans? Of course there is, but it’s so small that it’s not worth much worry—and probably acceptable when one of the goals of good parenting is to help kids learn how to handle autonomy and independence. It’s possible to be too careful, and indeed, driving to and from the beach and the store was almost certainly a much greater risk to the kids’ health and safety—probably by orders of magnitude—than leaving them alone for a few minutes. So let your kids have some independence.