She Left Her Kids Alone In The Car For Four Minutes. What Happened Next Probably Won’t Surprise You.

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I’m paranoid about leaving my kids in the car unattended. I’m not afraid that they will overheat or freeze; I trust myself to be careful enough to make sure that would never happen. And yes, I’m haunted by the horror stories. What I’m paranoid about is someone calling the cops on me, turning a four-minute dash into the drugstore for a box of Tampax into a life-altering nightmare. When I’m in the U.S., I don’t usually take chances. I’ll carry one kid in one arm and hold the other by the hand, cross the parking lot, and tolerate the exponentially more inconvenient experience of shopping with two little kids to avoid a confrontation with a worked-up stranger. Yesterday, I took a chance and my number in the lottery came up.

I’ve just begun conducting field research for my Master’s thesis. I’m interviewing Jamaican-Canadian single moms about the way they incorporate mobile device use into their domestic routines. It’s been a challenge to find women to participate in my study, and when I do find them, it’s important for me to make sure it’s as easy as possible for them to participate. I come to them, at a time they decide on. That’s how I ended up at a Tim Horton’s in Pointe Claire on 5 p.m. on Sunday.

My husband had to work so I took the kids with me. This was an initial meeting with a new participant — we’d smile and shake hands, I’d give her a consent form to read and sign, I’d install an app on her phone to track her phone use, and we’d set a time to meet in a few days for the full-length interview. The whole encounter would last no more than five minutes, but it’s probably the most important five minutes I’ll spend with her. As a researcher asking people to open up about their lives, a good, professional first impression is crucial. She could easily decide she’s too busy to participate and drop out of the study.

I’d parked directly in front of the Tim’s, my windshield no more than 2 metres from the plate-glass windows behind which my study participant was waiting to meet me. I left the kids in their carseats and turned off the ignition, but I left the key in so they could listen to music, a condition my 5-year-old insisted on. Inside, I chose the table closest to the window facing my car. I introduced myself to the participant, we exchanged a few friendly words and she set about reading the consent paperwork. I glanced up at my car out the window, and it was Happening.

A woman of about 50 was standing beside my car, peering in at my kids with a look of horror on her face. I thought I saw her reach for her phone. I got up. “I’ll be right back,” I said to my tablemate. Luckily it was after dark, and the window reflection from the coffee shop’s interior lights made it hard to see outside unless you were really trying to look. She barely seemed to notice as I ran outside.

“They’re mine,” I said to the woman. I was very deliberately keeping my voice calm. “It’s OK. I’m just inside, I’ll be right out.”

“The car is on,” she said. “And he’s climbing around in there.”

She was right — my older son had unbuckled his seatbelt and had climbed into the front passenger’s seat. That wasn’t cool — I hadn’t known he could do that.

“Oh — thank you. You’re right,” I said. I reached in, took the key from the ignition and told my son to get back in his seat. Then I closed the car door and turned to head back inside.

“Are you serious?” she shouted at my back. “You’re going to leave your kids in the car.”

I stopped. The stakes for me in this situation suddenly felt very high. I needed my study participant on the other side of the window to trust me as a competent academic — something that I barely am, as a Master’s student. I needed her to feel good about participating in my study, and I need to complete this study in a timely way so that I can get my MA in the spring. Every single participant in this study has been a challenge to recruit. Every successful meeting has felt like a victory. She cannot see this happening, I thought.

The parking lot woman stood before me. She was half-inside her car, and behind her two teenage girls were watching. She wanted to go for it, the script was ready on her tongue. All I had to do was to get upset, start defending myself, raise my voice. It would be just like in the news — we both had seen the whole scene before. I’d get worked up like the unfit mom that I am, I’d start swearing, showing my true colours. She’d be the avenging angel, the defender of children everywhere.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to respond to these types of encounters, because I’ve had them before. People want you to get mad and defend yourself, and it’s a bewildering experience for them if you don’t. They’re still mad, but they aren’t as easily justified in abusing you.

“Thank you for your vigilance, but I’m going back inside now,” I said to her.

She wasn’t ready to stop. “I can’t believe you!” she shouted. “Do you expect me to stay here and watch them?”

Here I tried to explain myself, which is almost always a mistake. I approached her car so I could keep my voice down. “Ma’am, I’m inside doing a short interview. I’m taking care of my kids while I am working. I’m doing my best. I appreciate your help, but I’m going to go now.”

I shouldn’t have said the part about the interview, because I’m sure that reminded her of viral news stories of single moms who leave their kids in the car while they go for job interviews at McDonald’s.

“No job is more important than the safety of your kids!” She was shouting now, savouring the cosmic deliciousness of Being Right. “Someone could come and get in the car, and drive away with them! It would take one second, and then where would you be?”

I turned around and went back inside. I couldn’t afford to keep my study participant waiting any longer and there was nothing left to say to this woman. At the table, my participant hadn’t noticed anything amiss, and was signing her form. I was upset but I hid it. Out the window, the woman stood by my car for a moment, and I wondered if she was going to call the cops after all. But she didn’t; she got in her car and left.


Any woman who spends enough time caring for children by herself in public will at some point be scolded by a stranger. It is inevitable. I’ve been criticized with varying degrees of hostility probably half a dozen times in the five years I’ve been a mother. It almost always happens when I am very obviously trying to do something under some degree of duress — carry groceries, move through a crowded store, complete a transaction, load or unload heavy shit. The chances someone shows compassion or a willingness to help in these situations is, in my experience, far less likely than it is for them to inform me that I’m fucking up.

It seems to be more appealing to scold and disdain a mother than it is to offer help. My experience has borne that out again and again. Sometimes, like yesterday at Tim Horton’s, I had made a mistake while trying to juggle my responsibilities. She was right about my keys — that was stupid of me. I’m grateful that she had the instinct to watch out for my kids that moment. She also could have called the cops and didn’t. But that obviously wasn’t the point. When I admitted my mistake and thanked her, she was not satisfied — what she wanted was for me to feel like shit. What is that?

My friend Sheri remarked to me that while it’s painful to see a stressed mom doing wrong by her kids — say, yelling at them in public — what she really needs is someone’s help. She does not need someone’s disapproval. Yes, children can be innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Why not help the parents manage their circumstances rather than punish them when they’re already struggling?

Last night at dinner I told this story, and we talked about how across town, the parking lot woman was probably telling a very different version to her family. Her teenaged daughters could chime in and corroborate all the details — how I didn’t seem to even care about my kids, how I seemed almost arrogant while blowing her off. (Me? NEVER!) It’s more fun for people to bask in their righteousness than to make a low-key effort in helping someone out. Is it easier for people to engage with a stranger through disapproval than through compassion? If your intention is to be helpful, be helpful. Don’t pick a fight so that you get to remind yourself and those around you that you’re THAT KIND OF PERSON, the kind of person who WON’T STAND FOR this or that. Most mothers don’t want to endanger their kids — give us the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Latcho Drom Might Be the Greatest Kids’ Movie Of All Time


What a wilderness is YouTube. It’s the Sacred Headwaters of the Internet. I barely explore it — I only really go like, one Clif bar’s worth of energy inside of it, unless we’re talking about clips of Grateful Dead shows, in which case I will indeed go deep. But I have made some weird discoveries, like when my son was really into trucks and I found a whole zone that is just unnarrated clips of construction machinery working, some of which have hundreds of thousands of views. That was a bit of a sad abyss to stare into.

When I was a kid and watched Sesame Street every single day, my favourite parts were the mini documentaries about real kids doing cool stuff like living in a motor home or taking care of their pet llama. Although contemporary Sesame Street is still OK, it hasn’t continued in that documentary vein. One of the main uses I’ve found for YouTube as a source of entertainment for my kids is as a trove of clips of people around the world doing rad and interesting shit.

In that category, it is hard to beat Latcho Drom, a film by Tony Gatlif made in 1993 about the historic migration of the Roma (gypsy) people from Rajasthan, India all the way across Europe. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube. There’s a LOT to say about this film. It kind of surpasses the scope of a humble website such as this. Maybe I can sum it up? Haha? Some people certainly criticized it, and Tony Gatlif more generally, for his sometimes essentialist approach, and definitely Gatlif cheezes in a distinctive way throughout his oeuvre of many films about the Roma people. BUT. For me, personally, as a person of Montreal descent in 1993, seeing it at the old Parisian theatre downtown with my mom (that was the really narrow one, if I recall, with like 2 screens? Yes?) it was basically the single most aesthetically/artistically exciting thing I had seen up to that point.


Rona Hartner (*sigh*)


The dude from Rusted Root

Sleep neither upon Gadjo Dilo, a later film by Gatlif starring the amazingly beautiful Rona Hartner (who inspired many misbegotten attempts at scarf-accessorization by me throughout my teens) and the adorable young Romain Duris who, at this age, looked a lot like the main dude in the contemporaneous and equally loosey-goosey band Rusted Root.

But I digress! Latcho Drom is a series of clips of people making music together. It is CHOICE GRADE BUSINESS, and it is perfect for kids. They can lose interest and return to it later and not be confused by a plot. The scene changes regularly and there are many kids on screen which tends to make it more interesting for them. There are scenes of extreme sadness in this film, and remembrances at sites of historical violence and trauma, but these are likely to pass over young kids unnoticed. For older kids it could be an interesting way to begin a conversation about contemporary European history and geopolitics, if you’re up for it. It also contains within it one of my favourite acts of public breastfeeding on film (start around 3:30 in this clip).

My kids and I have never watched the whole thing together; I’ve shown it to them in clips over the years. Their favourite clip is this one:

My favourite is this one, because it takes place in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue region of France, where my mom and I visited on a road trip in 2003. In this clip they are celebrating the annual festival of Sainte Sarah, a Roma saint whose statue is housed in the church by the ocean. My kids are into it because the dude is playing a “giant guitar,” and also there are horses in the ocean, which never fails to pique interest.



Baby’s first comments section

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 8.49.07 PMToday an essay I wrote about disciplining kids was published on Jezebel. Check it out here:

In my years so far of writing on the internet I’ve never been subject to a comments section like Gawker Media’s. Hundreds of comments within like, minutes. That’s the shit right there, if you’re in internet publishing. Chapeau, Gawker, you figured out engagement. Anyway, there are lots of interesting comments if you’re curious about peoples’ differing approaches to disciplining their kids. There are mercifully few comments calling me an asshole. Also, the dude who does their graphics is so good, right? I love his stuff.

Cheers everyone, chin-chin, TGIF, put your kids to bed and have a drink!

Born At The Right Time


I listen to Paul Simon at least every other day lately, which is probably too often. My kids really like him. This forces me to think about him more than might be strictly speaking necessary. I’m easily irritated by him, and I’ve started wondering why. In doing so I’ve felt myself being pulled into the old script of Millennials versus Baby Boomers – a script that I usually try to ignore, but lately Paul Simon won’t let me.  Continue reading

Picnic In The Boneyard


My dad Marty Jezer on the cover of the magazine for the Workshop In Nonviolence (WIN), 1969.

Nine years ago today my dad died. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Brattleboro Vermont, and for a handful of the years since he died, I have marked his passing by bringing bagels, coffee, and the Sunday New York Times to the graveyard and enjoying a leisurely newspaper brunch by his headstone. Continue reading