Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Baby left in car by forgetful parent dies.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2000]
Origins: Some tales you hope turn out to be nothing more than purely legend, horrifying little cautionary fables meant to inspire us to take that little extra bit of care. This is one of those legends. Unfortunately, it's also one that can't be dismissed as mere moralizing and handwaving, because such deaths happen. And they happen often.
The sad truth is, babies and little children die of heat stroke from being left in cars far more frequently than any of us would care to believe. Even the most cursory examinations of recent news accounts turns up double handfuls of such tragedies:
Sometimes parents deliberately leave their kids in cars, not realizing how dangerous a practice it is and figuring that at the worst, Junior will be a bit bored by the wait or will demand a sippy cup of juice as soon as they return. Some, however, do it as a punishment, seeing the hot car or the restraint of freedom as a form of payback for a child's earlier whining.
And then there are those who honestly forget, who in their befuddlement think their wives have the youngsters that morning, or that they've already delivered the tots to their sitters.
All of them — the innocent, the unthinking, and the abusive — end up the parents of dead children.
When this story circulates as a bit of lore and not as an excerpt from a recent news story, the typical version involves a father who thought he'd left his child at the daycare center. The need to clearly communicate the story's cautionary elements dictates that they not be diluted by any possible confusion about the parent's culpability. "This could happen to any parent," says the legend, "even the most caring and responsible." Thus, the bereaved father needs be portrayed as wholly innocent of any deliberate intent to harm the child, or even of the unintentional neglect of knowingly leaving the youngster in the car.
Very few would identify with a video poker addict or a pot smoker whose preoccupation with his own interests leads to the death of his child. But a great many will identify with the harried or distracted parent who makes a one-time mistake. When the tragic death is cast as wholly accidental, this horrifying outcome is presented as something that could happen to you.
One last word of caution: These deaths don't occur just in summer. Courtney Turner died in a car in New Hampshire in March. She'd been left there for all of an hour.
Barbara "baby on
Last updated: 2 September 2006
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