Q: Sorry, if this has already been asked and answered, but is there an official/legal age that children can be left in the car briefly while you pop in to use the ATM or grab a quick coffee? (Weather- and temperature-permitting, of course). Thanks!
A: I'll bet every parent is waiting to hear the reply to this question since we all want the convenience of just dashing to do a quick task without having to unbundle our kids and bring them in tow. Lord knows it makes the entire event take 10 times as long, and if they have fallen asleep -- UGH!
Unfortunately, there isn't a hard and fast rule.
Child Protection Agencies do have something called "failing to provide proper supervision of a child" and you can be charged with neglect if you leave them alone. However, the age for being unsupervised and for how long, varies by jurisdiction.
The range is also very wide. I have seen everything eight- to 14-years-old as the allowable age for being able to leave a child at home alone. In Ontario, age 10 seems to be the benchmark with courses on safety skills for being home alone geared to this age.
But what about a car? Just for a moment? Part of the assessment to determine if the parent was acting neglectfully is to assess the children's abilities and the environment they were left in.
The trouble with leaving children in a car is that a car is not a home. There are inherent safety risks in this specific environment. For example: they are probably restrained to a car seat, incapable of escape should an emergency arise. The car itself can be hit, catch fire or car-jacked in only a mere moment.
A car is mechanical and a child who can release themselves from a car restraint and can potential start the car or tamper with it. Cars undergo extreme and sudden changes in temperature. Of course no one expects any of these things, but they are possible and catastrophic if they occur.
So, I suggest that until you have a child who is between the ages of eight and 10, no longer in a car booster seat and already trained in the self-sufficiency skills to be home alone for short periods, I would not allow them to be in the car alone, either.
This is when we raise our hands and sing "Halleluiah!" for drive through coffee and banking. I use my Around Me app to find them. Perhaps we need a special parent app that shows all drive-up and drive-though services, like pharmacies.
If you do come across young kids left in cars, I recommend you take it upon myself to stand by the car and supervise the child until his or her parent comes back. Don't make a big statement. When the parent arrives, walk away. Job done.