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Human Parents Making Human Mistakes

diverging path in a corn maze
photo by Austin Kirk

It’s so easy to look at someone else’s mistake and say “I would never do that.” If you doubt it, just check your Facebook news feed.

Maybe we’re right when we make such observations. But even if we are, the truth is we would do something else that someone would never do. We are all human – even parents.

A Utah family was a recent target of online judgment after they accidentally left their 3-year-old son at a corn maze outside Salt Lake City. Another guest found the boy, obviously upset, and brought him to the maze’s staff. Kendall Schmidt, the maze’s co-owner, told The Washington Post that the scared and shaken toddler couldn’t give his own name (though he did come up with the names of his brother and his cat). Schmidt observed that families getting separated in the maze isn’t uncommon, so the incident did not seem unusual at first.

After attempting to locate the child’s parents and failing, the maze staff handed him over to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services for the night. The child’s panicked mother called the police the next morning trying to locate her son. Several people involved with the incident noted in press coverage that it seemed strange that no one had noticed the child missing earlier than the next day. Some online commenters were, unsurprisingly, even harsher in their assessment of the parents’ failings.

Shortly after the incident the child’s father, identifying himself only as “Robert,” spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune. He said the boy was home and doing well, and praised the work of Utah Child and Family Services in caring for him. Providing a bit more context for the incident, Robert observed that his wife had taken 11 of their 14 children to the maze; her sister also joined the outing with two or three more kids. Near the end of the trip, some of the older children asked if they could wait in line for free donuts; when their mother said yes and they piled out of the car, the 3-year-old likely slipped out too without anyone noticing.

The day was a diversion from the family’s routine, one involving multiple cars and the disruption of daily habits. Robert also noted that the 3-year-old often slept with one of his older siblings, rather than in his own bed. It took the reimposition of a normal schedule the next morning to determine that something was very amiss.

Robert has what he describes as a plural family, but says that this had nothing to do with the accident. Since he lives in Utah, this description may well mean a polygamous (or polygynous, which is one husband with multiple wives) arrangement; it may also mean some other configuration of multiple families sharing a home. Despite some unkind online judgment, I am inclined to agree with Robert’s assessment that the type of family the 3-year-old came from is incidental.

What happened appears to have been both an aberration and an accident. Robert says the family cooperated fully with child services, and while there may be more follow-up interviews, for now it seems that criminal charges are unlikely. Of course my sympathy should not minimize the seriousness of the incident; a 3-year-old got left in a corn maze on a night when the temperature would have dropped to near freezing. Luckily, there were other adults around who saw to his safety and comfort, and while both parents and child were frightened, everyone was ultimately fine.

This is the sort of accident that only happens to a particular parent once. As Alana Romain observed for “Romper,” “[…] it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that the incident has probably been a huge wake-up call to the family to be a bit more vigilant in the future – a reminder that all parents could probably benefit from.”

When you deal with humans, you have to plan ahead for screw-ups. If people were perfect we wouldn’t need quality control departments, or appellate courts, or collision insurance for our cars. But in the ordinary course of business (and life) we all make mistakes. Occasionally those mistakes will end in tragedy, but most tragedies result from a chain of events – and they can be averted when the chain is broken. In the corn maze, a compassionate stranger stepped in and broke the chain when she guided the lost little boy to the maze’s staff.

Each year, children die when left in hot cars by accident. This is horrible, and parents are sometimes prosecuted for it. But as long as there are children and cars and distractible human parents, children will be left in cars. Something needs to break the chain. General Motors has started equipping some of its vehicles with sensors that can detect when someone is in a parked, locked car and sound an alarm. A pair of senators have introduced legislation to make such technology mandatory in the future. In the meantime, parents can also buy “smart” car seats or wireless proximity sensors as safeguards. Such technology may well break the chain in many cases, and save lives as a result.

In law there is a standard of “negligence” and a higher (or rather, lower) standard of “gross negligence.” Gross negligence often gives rise to civil liability where ordinary negligence wouldn’t – because ordinary negligence is another way of saying “predictable human screw-up.” Accidents can sometimes lead to tragic outcomes, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily crimes.

We should be accountable for our choices. Grossly negligent behavior is, itself, inherently a choice – the standard is that no reasonable person would behave that way. But most of the time we should cut ourselves, and our neighbors, a little slack for just being human.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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