The dangers of the "parenting routine"
March 24, 2010 (WPVI) -- Every one of us could find ourselves facing a scene that will inflict more punishment than any judge and jury ever could.
Last July 1st Rimma Shvartsman, a Bucks County woman, strapped her little neighbor, two year-old Daniel Slutsky, into her minivan. But by the time she got to Fairy Tales, her day care center, Shvartsman says she forgot that Daniel was in her car. She didn't remember for seven more hours. By the time the horrified woman ran out to her car and lifted the hatch, it was far too late. Daniel had gotten out of his booster seat, but couldn't figure out how to unlock the car. His body was on the floor, brain dead, his internal temperature having reached 108 degrees.
This week Rimma Shvartsman was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment charges. But there was no joy in the courtroom. Shvartzman quietly cried into her daughter's shoulder as the verdict was read. Daniel Slutsky's parents, who had shed their own tears in the courtroom during the three day trial, were not present.
It is easy to point the finger and ask, "How could she? And how could a jury acquit her?" But the reason I wanted to blog about this week is this: Shvartzman actions are not the work of a monster. Every one of us, even the most loving of parents, could find ourselves standing there in abject horror, opening our car door on a scene that will inflict more punishment than any judge and jury ever could.
In his excellent story in the Washington Post last year, titled "Fatal Distraction" writer Gene Weingarten lays out who is most likely to do this: "The wealthy do it, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. ....In the past ten years it happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer...It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist. "
The name for this is hyperthermia, but you probably know better by the popular term "heat stroke." These kinds of deaths for children used to be rare. But they have spiked since the 1990s, in large part because of design changes meant to actually protect children: Front passenger bags are too strong and can kill small children when deployed. Instead, it was recommended child booster seats be moved to the back and infant seats be rear facing. This change perhaps saves lives regularly when parents are in accidents. But an unforeseen consequence---out of sight, out of mind---can also apply to our kids.
But how in the world does someone simply forget his child? The answer is literally buried deep in our brains. The basal ganglia at the bottom of the human brain look almost identical to the brains of lizards. It handles our most routine, basic skills, in effect taking over the things we do on autopilot. This allows the "smarter" parts of our brains---the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus---to focus on real time thinking and memory. Here's a sense of how this breaks down: You may drive the same path to work every day. But it's probably not unusual at all for you to miss something on the way---what's written on a billboard or that there's a new restaurant. That's because your basal ganglia is "auto piloting" you make the right twists and turns on the drive to work, while your conscious mind focuses on more pressing matters.
When people are overly stressed they can get distracted by their problems. Their basal ganglia powers them through the regular routine---drive to work, get coffee, turn on computer. But remembering the baby is in the car, especially if it is not part of a regular routine, can get dropped from the list entirely. In Shvartsman's case, she was pre-occupied by a worrying phone call from the evening before, where she learned that her thyroid cancer was perhaps reoccurring. Her basal ganglia got her through her morning, but forgot that she had an added to-do on her list: deliver Daniel Slutsky, who had fallen asleep on the ride, safely out of the car and into the daycare. It was a task so simple and routine that her brain gave it to her basal ganglia, which then, in its prehistoric dumbness, promptly forgot.
If you take the time to read Weingarten's piece, prepare for your heart to be broken. There is the story of the man at the state fair who found his dead child and then, in anguish as carnival music toodled, tried to grab a trooper's gun and kill himself. The father who fought for years to adopt his son from Russia, collapsing to his knees as a jury declares him not guilty of his toddler's death. The man who could hear his car alarm going off in the parking lot and kept clicking it off from his office window, not realizing that what he thought was the sound of annoyance was really the hallmark of his child dying.
Janette Fennell of Kids and Cars says we are entering the season for child heat stroke deaths, which kicks off now as the temps start to rise. We know that 30 to 40 children are going to die of this year, she tells me with a stony sureness.
So what can you do to make sure you are not in that terrible number? If you go to kidsandcars.org and click through to their technology page, you'll find some devices, like the one that plays nursery music anytime the child is in its seat and the car is not moving. But there are also some simple things you can try:
- Always put something you know you'll need, like your purse, wallet or cell phone, on the floor of the backseat, near your child
- Keep a large teddy bear in the car seat when your child is not in it. When your child is in his seat, put the bear in the front seat as a reminder of what's in the back
- Make arrangements with your child care provider that if your child is half an hour late without a pre-scheduled absence that they will call you
This blog is perhaps the longest I've written. That is because I recognize myself--- my absentminded, preoccupied self--in Rimma Shvartsman. My chest tightens and I taste metal as I realize just how easily it could be me on my knees, clutching the body of my son. So I write this as a warning to myself as well as to you. Life is ever faster now. Our problems are more constant and our stresses are more straining. Your brain is going to be overloaded. So tap into your evolved side to create a routine to save you and your child now, lest your inner caveman be at fault for yet another family's well of sadness and regret.Read more Parenting Perspective blogs by visiting the Parenting Channel on 6abc.com.
parenting, tamala edwards
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