It was a normal day. I let my kids loose on the playground after school dismissal. They were having such a good time that I decided to let them play a bit longer. This was free, unstructured play. They raced around, climbed trees, wielded swords (really sticks), talked with their friends, rolled on the ground, fought with each other, and ran some more. My oldest son could often be heard yelling “retreat!” or “advance!” The two younger brothers eagerly followed their fearless commander’s every word.

According to childhood and mothering experts, I did the right thing by letting my kids run feral after school. According to the zillion books produced by “experts” since I had my first child in 2007, free play is an important part of a child’s development. According to the zillion nutrition books produced by “experts” since 2007, exercise is a key part of keeping kids at a healthy weight.

By the time we were all slowly making our way to the car that afternoon, I could pat myself on the back for being a good mom. I’d done everything right. Yet, 30 minutes later later, while parked in front of my neighborhood grocery store, I was accused of quite the opposite by an authority few would question: an FBI agent.

Let me explain what happened.

Since we spent so much time on the playground, I knew dinner would have to be —as Food Network’s Sandra Lee would say—semi-homemade. I’d boil some rice and steam some green beans and rely on a store-bought rotisserie chicken. So, I loaded the kids in the car and headed to the store for that one item. The kids were hot and exhausted from so much expert-approved running around so I decided to leave them in the car, with the windows rolled up…


Of course I rolled down the windows (to the angst of my 7-year old who claimed he was cold. It was around 60 degrees that day). I reminded them of the rules and headed into the store. My kids know the drill. They are not to leave their seats and they are not to talk to anyone if someone approaches the car. If someone scares them, they are to exit the vehicle, hold hands, and follow their oldest brother into the store to ask for help.

My oldest is 9. He’s very smart and resourceful, and as I’ve watched him mature, I know I can trust his instincts and his ability to lead his brothers to safety. He’s my kid. I know him. I bet the parenting experts would applaud me for having such a deep understanding of my own child.

My 7-year-old has the conscience of a novice nun considering the monastic life, so he’s never the one I worry about. My 5-year-old is a 5-year-old. Enough said. Yet he understands consequences and knows he’ll face the wrath of the most feared villain in the superhero comics if he breaks the rules. I run a tight ship.

So, off I went confidently in search of a chicken. I emerged, chicken in hand, 15 minutes later. As I approached my car, I noticed a man in street clothes lingering at the front of the vehicle. I had a feeling he was waiting for me.

And he was.

He walked toward me as I got close to the car. He fidgeted with his wallet, opened it, and showed me a badge, saying, “I’m with the FBI.” He didn’t give me his name. Closing the wallet, he pointed at my car and said, “You can’t do that.”

“What can’t I do?” I asked.

“You can’t leave kids in the car unattended.”

“Wow.” I said. “Are you really doing this?” I laughed a little and then turned to put my chicken in the car. When I turned back to him, I could tell I had knocked the wind out of his sails. I wasn’t cowed. I wasn’t nervous. I hadn’t started begging for forgiveness. I didn’t immediately agree with him that I had done a bad thing and started giving him my weak excuses.

Instead, I calmly placed the chicken in the car, turned to him and firmly informed him that his harassment wasn’t welcome. I pointed my finger at him defiantly as I told him that I hadn’t done anything illegal or unethical and that unless he wanted me to call the police, he better back off my car and my kids.

He stuttered and said “ma’am, ma’am, kids get snatched all the time” – to which I replied I would expect law enforcement to know that’s not true. And it’s not. It’s not even remotely true.

What is true is that in Virginia—where I live—there’s no law preventing me from practicing my own judgment when it comes to leaving my kids in the car. That’s right. I hadn’t broken any laws, and yet this FBI official told me what I had done was illegal and implied what I’d done was morally wrong too. What’s more, this FBI official repeated the myth that kidnappings are common. Hogwash!

All crimes against children—homicides, sexual crimes, and abductions—are down, as is crime in general in the Unites States. Moms don’t often hear this reassuring fact, but as Free Range Mom founder Lenore Skenazy often points out, crime rates are back down to the level they were before the invention of the color television. Think “Mad Men” days!

And you know where all that comforting data comes from? Oh, you know…the FBI.

The FBI declined to comment on this incident, but it has left me rattled and insecure about the community in which I live. And you know who else is rattled? My kids. For two reasons: first, it turns out that Mr. Law and Order was standing outside my car for almost the entire 15 minutes I was in the store. His presence made my kids nervous. They didn’t know him and didn’t understand why he was lurking around the car. Second, they were startled when Mr. Badge Flasher started making their mother upset.

Well done, law man. Way to make my kids feel safe.

I’m still rattled. I’ve read about these incidents for years. I’ve had friends deal with this kind of harassment, but I’d managed to avoid these sorts of confrontations. Last week, it happened. And now I have a choice. I can cave and stop leaving the kids in the car while I run quick errands on temperate days and instead drag them tired and complaining through the grocery store, yelling at them the whole time. Or I can risk having to deal with the nervous FBI guy (and other do-gooders like him).

We do indeed live in safe times when mothers have no fear of kid snatchers, but instead deeply worry that some pearl-clutching, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit binge watcher will threaten them or harass them for making normal parenting decision.

What’s even more frightening is the idea that law enforcement—ostensibly the very people who should know the law—can get the facts so wrong, and conflate the horrifying cases of parents forgetting their kids are in the car, which sadly often results in their child’s death, with a quick pop into a store with children perfectly capable of opening a car door if needed.

I’m glad I knew my rights that day (mostly thanks to following the work of Free Range Kids founder Lenore Skenazy and checking her website for updates on laws preventing me from making my own parenting decisions). Few do. I hope my aggressive stand and lack of contrition made this FBI agent check his facts and I hope he thinks twice before messing with another mom.

Meanwhile, I’ll be watching out, not for kidnappers and child molesters who might prey on my kids, but for lurking law men looking to push around conscious and reasonable parents.

Julie Gunlock writes about food and parenting for the Independent Women’s Forum