How could a parent forget their child in the car? That is a question people ask every summer as dozens of children die in hot cars, forgotten by their parents.
Eric Stuyvesant used to be one of them.
“I was a keyboard warrior back in the early days of the internet and when I would hear something like this, I was brutal in any of my responses: ‘How do you forget a kid? It’s your kid. You can’t forget a kid,’ ” Stuyvesant said.
Then it happened to him.
In June of 2015, Stuyvesant was talking business on the phone while driving, and he forgot to drop off his 3-year-old son Michael at daycare.
“You know I looked up and saw the exit I needed to get off at about a mile out, but I got engaged in a conversation in how we were going to resolve some issues and I drove right past that exit and I drove home,” Stuyvesant said.
Now focused on work, he walked into the house and continued with his business. For an hour. Then fifteen minutes more. Then something shook loose in his memory: Michael.
“I raced out to the car and found him. He was still with us, but he wasn’t doing well,” he said. “He was in a profuse sweat. His breath was extremely labored. His blue eyes — he had the brightest blue eyes — had started to turn gray and were rolling back in his head, and I pulled him out of the car and we ran into the house and all I could think was to take the coldest shower possible to get as much heat out of him as possible.”
By the time paramedics brought Michael to the hospital, his temperature was still 104 — even after the cold shower. He would have six strokes but, ultimately, he survived.
Stuyvesant still wonders, “How did I leave my child in the car?”
Turns out, it’s pretty easy.
“I think people think cognition works better than it actually does,” he said. “We want to give it more credit. But perception, attention, and memory, they all have really strong limitations. They don’t work nearly as well as we think they do.”
Golob said thinking your children are too important to forget is dangerous.
“The kids are obviously the most important thing going on in the car, right? But other things capture our attention very easily, and attention doesn’t necessarily know what’s important,” he said. “For some things that are more dramatic — a very loud sound, for example — that will capture your attention, no problem.
“But more subtle things that you need to attend to — if you’re really focused on something, if you’re feeling a little stress — you can easily make these sorts of mistakes.”
In Stuyvesant’s case, he usually dropped Michael off at daycare before dropping his wife off at work. On the day of the accident, he drove his wife to work first, and he intended to drop Michael off next, but his brain wanted to go home.
Golob said using this tendency to go on autopilot may help safeguard your kids.
“So, for example, when I put the kids in the car or take them out of the car, I have a routine,” he said. “I walk all the way around the car and look through the windows and look at them.”
Golob then talks with them, or sings “or anything to get them on your mind, so it’s recent and vivid. That’ll also make it a little harder to forget that they’re there.”
Golob added other things to incorporate into a routine include leaving a purse, a briefcase, your lunch or your phone in the back seat with your children, whether the kids are in the car or not. It has to be something you always do for it to become part of the autopilot process, he said.
“Just check. Even when you think they’re not there, check,” Stuyvesant said.
So far, this year there have been 25 confirmed heatstroke deaths in cars in the U.S. Two of them were in Texas.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie