Thursday, August 22, 2019

On Leaving Children to Die in Hot Cars

A long time ago a friend called me, excited. He'd finally found a reason why he couldn't learn to play guitar. He had schmigglie proclastic stiglination. I made that up. I have no memory of the term he used, but he claimed he had found a "condition" that made him unable to learn the guitar or to sing in tune.

I responded: "Yeah. It used to be called: 'no talent'." He got angry for a moment, but worse insults pass between on a regular basis, so life went on.

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with psychology. First off, I don't like its inherent paradoxes. For instance, things like this hypothetical: if you hyper-discipline your kids, they will be rule-following, well-adjusted adults or they could become violent criminals. (That helps me, how?)

The second thing I dislike, which is the focus of today's ramblings, is a mixture of psychologists and the general public: the confusion of behavior explanation and condoning said behavior.

We had a humdinger of a kerfuffle over on my personal Facebook page last week. Another case occurred, very near my home, of a parent locking his or her child in a hot car all day. The poor baby died and I had the audacity to post this:

A baby died in a hot car — it seems; no autopsy yet — at Lindenwold station. Here come the people to explain how we shouldn’t judge parents who “make a mistake” and how “it could happen to anyone.” Not to me. Ever. And I can be plenty absent-minded. If you do that, it means one thing: there are things in this world that are more important to you than your own child. That is all it means. This makes you the exact opposite of a good parent. If we are going to bring back standards, this is a good place to start.

(I found out today, she was two. Not a baby. That's even harder to do. Updated info on this case says it was not the father -- he is a convicted criminal without parental custody -- who did this. But, many a parent has done this, so the principle remains the same.)

The overwhelming majority of people reacted as I did, with anger, "likes," and agreement. Some people who wrote on my thread were pretty...energetic (more than I was comfortable with) in their condemnation of such a heinous mistake. Some made fun of recommendations about leaving one's cellphone in the backseat so as not to forget one's child; others of cars with warnings about checking the back seat...

This prompted an exceedingly intelligent and deeply valued friend of mine to more or less come in with guns blazing against the idea that some (including myself) were saying it "could never happen" to us. He shared a video in which a newscaster said, "If you think it couldn't happen to you, you're wrong" and in which a neuroscientist talked about the conditions under which it "could happen to anyone." My friend said that making fun of tactics and warnings is foolish and saying that "it could never happen to me" is "hubristic". His arguments were not without merit.

That said, I maintained there and will state here: It could never happen to me. (People all over the globe just cringed... "But...the saying...") I could never, under any circumstances, have left on of my babies or toddlers in a car. Never.

Those who love platitudes will roll their eyes. (I always think of Frost's "He will not go behind his father's saying/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, "Good fences make goodneighbors.") But people do love platitudes, even if they become irrelevant or questionable.

While "never say never" applies perfectly to saying "I can smoke...lung cancer will never happen to me," it does not apply as neatly to "I will never eat liver." Or, indeed, to: "I would never forget my kid in a hot car."

My friend argues that a certain set of circumstances could lead anyone to lock his or her child in a hot car all day and forget. (So, too, it seems, does the neuroscientist.) But my question for psychology is this: Why is it that behavior modification therapy exists? Don't some overcome their natural psychological tendencies through therapy? So, doesn't that mean that these mental "glitches" are surmountable? If so, why do we talk as if they are not? Maybe because it is safer that way. I get that.

For me, though, strength of will and priorities are powerful things. I stand by my post.

But just as we have to avoid seeing diagnoses and psychological theories as excuses for failures (and what else but a failure is leaving one's child in a car to die?) we have to avoid condemning people as people because of these failures.

Yes, I think someone who locks his kid a car is the very definition of a bad parent. That does not, however, mean the person is a bad human being. Skewed priorities don't make one evil; stupidity does not make one evil; being easily distracted doesn't make one evil; not having a strong parental connection to one's child doesn't make one evil. But all of these, sure as anything, can make one a bad parent. (Hat tip: Jesus. He said it way before this. This is what He meant by not judging others. He didn't mean we shouldn't have standards.)

The fact my emotions make me want to beat the stuffing out of a parent who does this cannot affect my reasoning.

If I cared enough -- if it were enough of a real priority -- I would keep my weight down to 195 pounds (my fightin' weight). I do okay, but I don't work hard enough for 195. I have a psychological and conditional (I get busy) tendency to eat lots of food. Sure, it adds to the challenge and explains my issue. But guess what: Fate will take me earlier if I stay where I am. He's not going to give me a pass on, say, diabetes because I had a "condition" or because my life was so busy I simply kept forgetting to watch what I ate and to exercise.

My kids? Nothing has ever come before them, not in my head and not in my actions. (Between you and me, it's why I am 51 and just launching a viable career in music composition. Next to my family, music is the most important thing in my life. Next to my family.) So don't tell me never to say never, please.

(And in case you are wondering, my track record -- in terms of my "watch" -- with my kids in terms of serious injury or allowing them into potentially life-threatening situations is exactly zero. They are teenagers now. Now it is becoming their responsibility; but I still remain focused.)

Should we have warning bells and strategies for not forgetting kids? Yes, we should. Most of us parents don't need them -- and I do believe it's an overwhelming majority of us -- but some do, and saving kids needs to come first. It's sad but true.

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