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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things you might not want to say about hot car deaths

I live in Wichita, Kansas. Kansas is a place of extreme temperatures-- it can get bitterly cold in the winter, and deathly hot in the summer. Today, for example, the high is supposed to be about 106.

On Thursday, a baby died here in the heat. Another hot car death. She was 10 months old, and left in the car for two hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

In this case her was name Kadylak, and she was the foster daughter of two men in their late 20's who also have several other foster children.

If you live in any place where it routinely becomes very hot in the summer, you're probably familiar with the story-- the father forgot that the child was in the car. He went about his day somewhere else while she remained there. In that confined space, the baby died of heat stroke. The father is distraught. He didn't mean for this to happen. That father, in this case named Seth Jackson, wants to die himself, according to his mother.

On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, inside of hot cars according to the advocacy group Kids And Cars. Over 600 have died in this way since 1998. In roughly half of the cases, the parent/driver forgot that the child was in the car.

Proposals have been made for technological solutions to this problem; a way to force parents to remember that there is a small child in the car. A child who may be asleep and therefore making no noise him/herself, a child whose car seat is in the back of the car because he/she is too young to sit in the front seat of a car with airbag technology, a child whose car seat might not only be in the back of the car, but facing the back of the car so the driver won't even see his/her face without a mirror installed.

A high school student from Albuquerque (another hot place) named Alissa Chavez won an award last year for designing an alarm system called "The Hot Seat" which notifies the driver if a child is left in a vehicle. There are also, as you might expect, apps for that. Kids And Cars has a petition to the White House asking for funding to be allocated to the Department of Transportation to research technology (the nature of which isn't specified in the petition) to tackle the problem of children being left in hot cars, and also to "require installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone left alone [sic] in vehicles."

After so many years of hearing about children dying in this way, and listening to people's reactions to the stories, I've noticed a few trends in these reactions. Not positive trends. Trends that sound, quite frankly, a lot like concerted efforts at empathy avoidance. I'd like to address a few of these and explain why I find them so problematic.

1. "I can't believe he/she forgot that she had a child."

In the roughly 54% of occasions on which a child was left in a hot car because he/she was forgotten, it wasn't because the parent forgot that he/she had a child. He/she forgot that the child was left in the vehicle. Big difference.

2. "This parent must have been drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid/evil." 

In this case, at least,
Neighbors described Jackson and his partner as doting parents. 
"They are two of the most kind-hearted guys that I have ever met. And I hate that there's so much controversy right now with babies' being left in the car, because I truly don't feel from the bottom of my heart they would ever do this on purpose," said Lindey TenEyck, who lives across the street.

3. "This parent should be 'forgotten' in a jail cell for about 50 years and see how he/she likes it."

.....
Never mind, your capacity to empathize is clearly broken. I dearly hope you have no children of your own-- not because you might leave them in a hot car, but because I can see you banishing them to Siberia the moment they first burst into tears at the hospital. They wouldn't even make it to car.

4. "I just can't imagine doing/having done this with one of my children." 

All right, this is the big one. This is the main thought I want to address.

The fact that you can't imagine something like this means very, very little on the one hand, and quite a lot on the other.

Your not being able to imagine something means very, very little, I should say, in terms of its truth value. Not being able to imagine something is called a cognitive constraint, in that it's hard to meaningfully process a concept if you lack the ability to get your mind around it in the first place. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

Plenty of people misconstrue evolution, for example, because they just can't get their minds around the length of time it would take for the genetic structure of a species of organisms to change sufficiently for their progeny to become a different species, and so you get bizarre straw man characterizations of evolution that have no correlation to reality, like the crocoduck for example.

Now, just because Kirk Cameron is unable to properly imagine how evolution really works, that doesn't mean that evolution doesn't work. It just means that his poor brain, for whatever reason, is unable to grok the concept. He can't grasp that evolution is true because the only version of it he's willing or able to entertain is a caricature.

Likewise, your inability to do something like forget your own child in the back of your own car might be a caricature of a different sort-- an unwarranted but entirely understandable mental distancing from the idea that such a horrendous tragedy could have ever happened, or especially could ever happen in the future, to one of your own children because of your own negligence.

Let me emphasize those two words again-- entirely understandable. It's entirely understandable to banish from your mind the thought of something like this happening in your own life, because if a parent went around seriously considering that any and all tragedies which have ever ended the life of any child could happen to his or her own children, he/she could be rendered paralyzed with fear. It's possible that this person would become unable to function as a parent if that happened, because parenting involves risks, and imagining the worst possible consequence of every risk has a way of preventing people from being willing to take any risks.

Right?

Okay, but here's the problem with that, and this is the part that means a lot, as I mentioned-- being unable or unwilling to conceive of yourself doing something, especially a thing which involves forgetting something important with disastrous results, has the effect of inhibiting your ability to empathize with people who have done that thing. People who-- this is important--  it's very likely also would've said that they would never forget their child in a hot car, who would have themselves condemned any other parent who did so as drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid and/or evil. Yes, I'm quite sure that Seth Jackson himself would've said that.

So what ends up happening is that when someone like Jackson does forget, and a child ends up dying, there are endless other parents out there, who aren't necessarily any smarter or more responsible or loving or conscientious, who nevertheless have to condemn what he did in the strictest terms. This person who is described by his neighbor as lying on the ground near his car, "practically in the fetal position," experiencing the sort of pain that no parent ever wants to experience. The kind no parent could ever forget. This person is assumed to be the worst sort of human being imaginable. And it's very likely that right now, he would not disagree.

Except the problem is, he isn't. He's a parent who made a mistake. The problem with shutting off empathy to this person out of a sense of self-preservation, or rather a preservation of the image of oneself as a good parent who would never do this, is that it doesn't fix anything. It does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening again. And again, and again, and again. Which brings me to the last thought.

5. "Pushing for [insert proposed safety measure here] means blaming [insert manufacturer here] for this sort of thing instead of the negligent parent." 

No, it doesn't. No more than any other safety device invented since the beginning of time has meant this.

When you and I were babies, we didn't travel in super-safe car seats in the back seat, facing backward. Maybe we were in car seats. But they weren't the same kind, and they were probably in the front seat or maybe even on the floor. In such a position, I can't help thinking that our presence there, even while asleep, was more of a reminder to Mom or Dad driving us around that we were in the car.

Does that mean that the backward-facing seats in the backseat are bad, and the practice should be ended? No, of course not. It means that in the act of moving car seats to the back seat, which was done in the first place because of the introduction and standardization of air bags because one of those being triggered could be dangerous to a small child in the front seat, may have created a new risk of its own which deserves its own safety concern. It makes absolutely no sense to slam on the brakes (figuratively speaking) when it comes to this concern, and insist that this is where safety measures end, that nothing should be done to prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car because it's just their own fault. They're horrible people and deserve to suffer, and that's where it ends, right?

No.

Do you care more about making sure parents suffer when their children die, or do you care more about preventing the children from dying? Because trust me, the first one is going to happen regardless.

Parents can make horrible mistakes. Good ones. Smart ones. Capable ones. That's the risk of being a parent-- you're going to screw up sometimes. If you're lucky, the results won't be devastating. That of course doesn't mean that it's all up to luck, but there is definitely a lot of luck involved.  It's okay to acknowledge that. It doesn't mean you're admitting to being a terrible parent. If it helps, you don't have to announce it to the world-- I'll do it for you.

I know that the pressure to appear perfect is neverending. But don't let that get in the way of empathizing with people who have clearly experienced tragedy, because they're already suffering enough. And certainly don't let it get in the way of supporting help for parents who need it. Because in the end, it's better that they get that help, isn't it?

Who knows, you might even benefit from it too. Or your kids will. Or their kids.

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