The day my son fell out of a car

It is a chilling memory that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

We were all set to leave for a family outing one Sunday last year when a red light on the dashboard came on, prompting my husband to ask if we had shut the car doors firmly.

The flashing stopped right after he spoke, so he drove off without waiting for a reply.

Not realising that all was now in order, my son, settling in behind the driver's seat, chose that moment to open the door next to him for a quick check.

I turned just in time to see him being flung out of the car as my husband swung left out of the parking bay.


I screamed, gestured wildly at my husband to stop the car, then jumped out before it came to a halt.

In the few heart-stopping seconds it took for me to dart round the back of the car to get to my son, the worst scenario was already unfolding in my mind: He had been crushed by the rear wheel, maybe pinned under it. He could be dying. Or dead.

Instead, I found my eight-year-old struggling to get up. He was visibly shaken, even a little embarrassed. His legs and arms were badly scraped, but he was unhurt otherwise.

I went weak with relief.

Imagine if he had hit his head. Imagine if my husband had been going faster. Imagine if there were cars behind that could not brake in time.

Thank God none of these ifs befell us that day.


We should have checked that the doors were locked and the kids safely buckled up before driving off, but we didn't. Luckily for us, no one besides our friends and family who heard the story knew of our oversight.

Two other sets of parents are not getting off so lightly. A momentary lapse, in attention for one and judgment for the other, have made them the talk of the town, if not the world.

Michelle Gregg is the mum who dared turn away for a few seconds, apparently to tend to one of her three other kids in tow, only to find that her three-year-old son had somehow breached the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Zoo officials, fearing for the child's safety, shot and killed the gorilla that was seen dragging him about at one point.

Over in Japan, the Tanookas meant to leave their son by a remote forest briefly to punish him for pelting people and cars with stones.

When they drove back to get him minutes later, the seven-year-old was gone, prompting a search that lasted nearly a week as well as a national debate on child discipline.

In both cases, the boys suffered no serious injury. Their parents, however, are lynched by the social media mob.

To be clear, they are not without blame.

Gregg could probably have kept a closer watch on her son, who was reportedly heard asking to join the primates before proceeding to do so. Ultimately, the child was her responsibility.

The Tanookas' decision to carry out their threat was impulsive and the punishment excessive, as the father himself admitted in a tearful public apology.

But none of them intended to cause harm. A confluence of unfortunate factors simply led to a perfect storm.

Going by the avalanche of views and abuse, however, you would think most people have never lost sight of their kids or made a bad decision.

There have been calls to arrest, prosecute and even shoot the parents involved, for perceived crimes of murder (of the gorilla) and child abuse (of young Yamato Tanooka).

The outrage is understandable, but the self-righteousness is grating.

Granted, we might not let our children tumble into an animal enclosure or wander for days without food in the wilderness.

But we most certainly have risked their health or lives, in ways big and small, through ignorance, complacency, carelessness, ineptitude or sheer bad luck.

An accident might be lurking around the corner each time you fiddle with your phone while out with the kids, for instance.

Heck, a mishap could well be in the making each time you fiddle with your phone when you are supposed to be doing something else, whether you have kids or not.

If we accept that no one is perfect, why is society so quick to pounce when mums and dads fall short?

Asked for her take on the parent-shaming culture, Emily Willingham, a blogger and developmental biologist, told American media group NPR: "It's partly a defensive way to rationalise how it will never, ever happen to you and partly because apparently we're all a pack of judgmental goons."

The best lay comment I've read so far is an expert jibe at those gleefully casting stones. "I made zero parenting mistakes for 34 years. Then I had my first child," someone with the monicker Reader posted.

In any case, no amount of good parenting can guarantee our kids' safety, as a commentary in The Guardian pointed out.

The gorilla saga or forest fiasco could well happen to any of us, just perhaps in more conventional forms.

Every parent has a variation of one of these horror stories to share: Having your child fall from an improbable height, slam into a rock hard surface, vanish in a crowded place or, yes, fly out of a moving car on your watch, to name but a few.

Be grateful if he escapes with nothing more than a few cuts, some tears and a bruised ego.

Then have the decency to keep your fingers to yourself when other mums and dads screw up. No pointing, wagging or typing of venomous diatribes.

Above all, stay vigilant. Who knows, one slip-up and you could be the next parent everyone loves to hate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'The day my son fell out of a car'. Print Edition | Subscribe