Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad and spend a lot of time learning how to be a great parent. Some of what’s out there is good (your books, for example), but a lot of it is insulting and condescending. Is it really necessary to treat parents like idiots?
A: Tough question: A year or so ago, I was writing an article about imaginative play and received a pretty nifty Superman cape to review. I was just about to open the package when I noticed the label: “Warning: This cape will not make you fly.” Does anyone really believe that a cape will make them fly? (Okay, some children might, but that’s a whole other issue: As a parent, would you leave a child who thinks he can fly near an open window?).
Then, a few weeks ago, I saw a tiny story about how Walmart is posting signs outside some of their stores reminding shopper to “Look before you leave. Please make sure children are not left unattended in vehicles.” On one hand, I get it—every year, we hear story after story about children who are permanently disabled or die after being left to bake in a parent’s car, and Walmart is doing a public service. On the other hand, do we really need to be reminded not to leave our kids in cars?
And, from a purely legal point of view, I wonder whether Walmart could be sued by a parent who left a child in a car parked in a Walmart lot that didn’t have the warning signs or where the signs were blocked or otherwise out of view. Given the tendency too many of us have to blame others for our problems, I wouldn’t be surprised. And, from a purely legal point of view, I wonder whether Walmart could be sued by a parent who left a child in a car parked in a Walmart lot that didn’t have the warning signs or where the signs were blocked or otherwise out of view. Given the tendency too many of us have to blame others for our problems, I wouldn’t be surprised. A few years ago I was interviewed on The O’Reilly Factor about a case where two children drowned in a drainage pool owned by a utility company. The children had three times gotten out of the house, run down the street, and climbed through a hole in the fence. Neighbors brought them back the first two times. The third time, the children died. When asked, the mother said that yes, she’d locked the doors, but that the older of the two kids–who was about 6–“was really good at opening locks.” Who’s responsible? The kids? The utility company? The neighbors who weren’t there the third time? Oh, wait. What about the mother?
If we do decide that we need warning signs to protect us from seemingly obvious hazards, where does it end? Are we going to create a Warning Sign Police Department that will come into your home and post signs? Or maybe they’ll stand over your shoulder and tell you to put away sharp knives, not to leave burners unattended, clean lint out of the dryer (a known fire risk), and check your mayo for mold? The opportunities are endless—and absurd.
At least until you hear about people like 22-year old Sierra McMillan of Tampa, Florida. Just recently, Sierra started running a bath for her 7-month-old. So far so good. Clean babies are always a delight. But then the doorbell rang and Sierra went to open it. Strike one: Who leaves a 7-month-alone in a bathtub? She chatted with a salesman—who later told police that he’d heard a baby crying but that the crying stopped after a few minutes. Strike two: Who chats with a stranger when your infant is in the bathtub crying—and then not crying anymore? 15-20 minutes later, Sierra excused herself—leaving the salesman at the door—and went to the bathroom to turn the water off. Strike three: 15-20 minutes? What?! Let’s just cut to the chase here. A few minutes later, emergency personnel and sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house and left with the infant, who’d drowned. Sierra was arrested and charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. Not nearly harsh enough, in my view.
So what could have been done to avoid this tragedy? Where would the warning signs have had to be posted for Sierra McMillan to have seen them? In the bathroom? On the bathtub faucets? On the forehead of the salesman who came to her door (“Caution: Please do not purchase anything from this person if you have a child in the bathtub.”) Or maybe we really do need to assign those Warning Sign Police officers in every home. Hmm. Might work. But who’s going to warn them to make sure their shoes are tied, to wash with soap and water after using the bathroom, or to stay awake on the job?