On the Receiving End of Advice: An Encounter at the Bank

In the cooler months, if I have to run to the bank to make a deposit when I have all three of my kids with me, I've gotten in the habit - maybe a bad habit - of letting my kids hang out in the car for the five minutes it takes for me to run in. (Am I admitting bad parenting here? Go ahead and judge. We all have our thing.) My oldest, N, is in a booster seat and is able to come into the bank to get me if there's a problem. I wouldn't leave only my younger two, trapped in their five-point harnesses, alone without big brother to help watch them. N also knows to lock the doors if he feels scared. And I stress that a bank run is the only time and place that I leave them for any length of time, and if I think it will take longer than the few minutes it does, or if it's a warm day, I bring them in with me.

The issue for me is, is it easier and safer to get them all out of the car, walk them across the (tiny) bank parking lot, try to control all three in the bank while I make my deposit, walk them back across the parking lot, and strap them all back in, or is it easier and safe enough to leave them strapped in the car, windows down, oldest child on the alert, for those few minutes? Different parents might have different ideas of where the safety/convenience line lies, and usually I go for safety over convenience (see my obsession with car seat safety), but, again, we all have our thing.

Anyway, I was filling out my deposit slip when a woman standing in line with a young toddler on her hip says, "You shouldn't leave your kids alone in the car like that."

"I'm sure they'll be fine," I responded.

She said something that ended with CPS, which I didn't catch because I was doing addition in my head.

"You can feel free to call them, then," I said.

"I would if it was a hot day. I don't think you'd leave them if you were aware of how fast a car can heat up."

"I'm very aware of it."

"I don't think you are or you wouldn't have left them."

"That's why I left the windows down, and my oldest can come get me if there's a problem. If it were a hot day, I wouldn't leave them."


"I'm sure you wouldn't," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Okay, well I invite you to follow me around this summer and criticize everything I do," I said, fed up with this line of interrogation.

Anyway, the conversation, as it were, deteriorated from there and then ended abruptly when she was called to the next teller. I was shaking, and she chatted amiably with the teller while she conducted her business. In my head, I was running through all sorts of snippy things I could say to her, like, "Is your child still rear-facing in his car seat like mine is?" or "Did you breastfeed your child?" or something like that, just to rev up the mompetition. I couldn't help thinking that if she was that concerned about my kids in the car, she could have offered me her place in line, or at least speeded up her transaction so that my poor, overheating kids wouldn't have to wait so long for me to come back.

I eventually (and by eventually, I mean two minutes later) finished with my deposit and went back out to the car, where my kids were sitting comfortably in a pleasantly cool car. I closed the windows and started up the air conditioner and headed home. I asked N if it had been hot in the car. "No," he said. I said, "You know that if you think something's wrong, you can come get me, right?" He said yes.

Mollified that I was "right" this time, I'm now trying to process the conversation on a different level. I think we need to be sensitive to how we give advice, not just what kind of advice we give, and I'm sure the encounter could have gone very differently.

Look, in some sense, this woman was absolutely right and was probably just trying to pass along information to me. (Whether she was acting out of genuine concern for my kids or just a general feeling of superiority, I don't know.) According to safekids.org, "Did you know that even on a mild day, the temperature inside a car can rise 20 degrees in just 10 minutes? On an 80-degree day, the inside of a closed car can quickly reach 100 degrees in the time it takes to run into the store for an errand." This sharp rise in temperature can cause hyperthermia/heat stroke, in which the child's body cannot cool itself effectively and overheats. Over a relatively short period of time, this can cause severe dehydration and even death. Every year, over a dozen children die locked in hot cars. I know this, and that's why I never leave my kids in a closed up car on a warm day. However, today wasn't particularly warm, although it was sunny, I knew my deposit would take less than five minutes, and I left the windows open far enough to let in the breeze. If I had gone in and felt that it was far busier than I expected, I would have gone back out to get my kids and bring them into the air-conditioned bank. I promise.

The problem with the advice was not that it was incorrect; it's how she approached me and opened the conversation. By starting with "You shouldn't...", she immediately put me on the defensive. I had already done it, and I knew (even if she didn't) that I had weighed the risks and decided they would be fine for a few minutes.

Perhaps if she had said, "Hey, I noticed you left your kids in the car. I read that cars get hot really fast. Did you know that?", then I could have responded, "Yes, I do know that. Thanks for your concern, but today isn't terribly hot, and I know my oldest can come get me or open the door if it gets too hot in there." She could then have left it at that, knowing that she did her best to give me the warning she wanted to give.

Or, perhaps if she had not been sarcastic with me, making me more upset instead of dropping it, neither of us would have had to end the encounter upset or angry.

I fully admit that I handled it poorly, too. I was hungry, tired, and didn't feel well. I just wanted to finish up and go back home. I generally don't react well when put on the spot, and now, thinking back, I'm sure there were many things I could have said or done to diffuse the situation. However, I do feel that beginning with "You shouldn't..." and then bringing CPS up almost right away were her mistakes and caused the situation to escalate.

I do wish I could have a chance to speak with her when we both have cooler heads. I would apologize for becoming sarcastic and hope she would do the same. I would explain that I do, in fact, know a lot about car safety, including the risk of hyperthermia, and that I was being quite honest when I said I wouldn't leave my kids in the car on a hot day. I might even go so far as to say that I appreciate that she's trying to pass along that information, but that maybe the problem was the way she approached me. I would like her to know that I also like to give advice to help people keep their kids safer, and I've had to learn how to couch advice and criticism in a way that won't immediately put people on the defensive. And I would probably say that throwing CPS into the conversation like that is a sure way to get your "friendly" advice ignored.

My favorite way to give advice is the "sandwich" method, which I had been doing instinctively before I knew it had a name. Basically, you give a compliment or say something positive, add in your critique or advice, and then close with another compliment. In this case, she could have said, "Wow, three adorable boys! You must be busy! I know it must be annoying to get them in and out of the car all the time, but did you know that a car can heat up really fast on a sunny day? I wouldn't want to see your boys get hurt. I noticed that your toddler is still rear-facing. That's awesome!" See? That wouldn't have made me defensive, because how could anyone resist those compliments?

And now that I've had some food for thought, it's time to have some food for stomach. I've made an experimental spaghetti squash casserole for Passover, and I'm anxious to see how it came out!

Have you been in a situation where you've been on the receiving end of an advice attack? How did it turn out? How could you or the other person have handled it better?

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