Slate’s Dear Prudence Fields Troubling Childcare Quandary

(excerpted from

Q. Child Left in a Car as Punishment: For the past three months I have nannied for the “Smith” family. Mr. Smith has a 7-year-old son from his first marriage (Jack), and Mrs. Smith is pregnant and has two daughters from her first marriage. This weekend I arrived 15 minutes early for my shift. I found Jack strapped into Mrs. Smith’s Prius. The windows were rolled down, but the car was still very warm. Jack told me that he misbehaved … Mrs. Smith left him in the car as punishment. … she explained that Jack had been throwing a tantrum for over 30 minutes and that she left him in the car to let him calm down. They had only been home for 10 or 15 minutes by the time I arrived. I told her it made me uncomfortable that she left a child in a car on a hot day, even if the windows were rolled down. … after I went home, Mr. Smith called me to tell me his wife had made a mistake … To them, the matter is closed. I still feel something’s not right and that I’m letting Jack down by dropping this. … Am I being paranoid? Should I keep nannying and chalk this up to a mistake?

A: … Leaving a 7-year-old strapped into a car unsupervised is the kind of thing that rightly gets people arrested. For now, I think you should call the 211 hotline (and 800-4ACHILD is another resource that can give guidance) and discuss what happened. This is not a government reporting number, but a referral line for to help people sort out whether to call government agencies. … it sounds as if Jack needs gentle, compassionate handling, which he’s not getting. You are obviously a force for good in Jack’s life. If you want to continue being the Smiths’ nanny, keep your eyes open and keep speaking up for him. And if you ever see a replay of anything like the left-in-the-car incident, do not hesitate to call 911.

Poor parenting choices happen all the time, and the line between suboptimal parenting and criminal maltreatment can be a tough call to make in certain situations. There is always a bigger picture, which could be for the better or for the worse, but it is always better to err on the side of child safety.


We encourage the “Smith” family (and every family) not to take lightly the dangers of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, no matter the temperature. A child faces more than the risk of heat stroke when left in a vehicle: power windows, accidental motion, trunk entrapment, and more can all cause serious injury or even death.

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources available to caregivers, parents, and concerned adults to help them help kids in need. We’re glad Childhelp can provide some of those resources and encourage concerned caregivers to stand up and speak out when they see a child being treated in a harmful (or potentially harmful) way.

Thanks to Dear Prudence for spotlighting this question, best wishes to Child Left in a Car as Punishment, and we hope the Smith family will take the time to learn more about the hazards of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, and how to deal with a tantrum without endangering their son.

(Note: Only 19 states have laws against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Read more at