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Carolyn Hax: Defending decisions about child safety in the car


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I’ve had multiple people question my car-seat-related decisions for my children over the last few years. I follow American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which currently recommend that children be rear-facing until they reach the max weight designated by the seat manufacturer, and remain in a five-point harness until they reach the max weight for their forward-facing seat. Many kids are in elementary school before they are really big enough to use a booster seat and shoulder belt.

I know several people who think you’re “supposed” to turn children forward-facing on their first birthday or transfer them to a booster seat when they turn 4. I don’t go around making comments to people who have done these things, but they feel justified in asking me why I didn’t. I don’t know quite how to respond without in some way saying, “Um, well you’re doing it wrong.” There are a lot of parenting choices where “right” is subjective, but I am not aware of any debate among experts on this topic.

On this same subject, how can I diplomatically explain that my petite 4-year-old is only allowed to ride in a five-point harness when she’s with her aunt and uncle? Their younger child is using a booster seat in violation of our state laws and I don’t want to insult them, but I also refuse to endanger my child to keep the peace.


Car Seat Judging

Remember, these practices and recommendations have evolved a lot over the years, from no restraints at all 40 years ago to LATCHing, rear-facing and five-point harnessing. The “right” thing you’re doing now can be different from what someone knew to be “right” just a few years ago. So, I think it’s more productive to approach it with that in mind, as opposed to taking the “I am not aware of any debate among experts on this topic” tack.

For example, you can respond to people’s questions with: “Yeah, car seat rules are a constantly moving target. I use the AAP guidelines.” Any further pressure can be dispatched with a rhetorical, “We all have to do what we think is best, right?”

As for riding with the aunt and uncle, hold your ground with, “It’s about weight and height, not age, and so Pookie can’t use a booster yet.” And if you get flak for it, a firm, “Humor me, please,” can go a long way.

Re: Car Seats:

Just make sure you are making a clear distinction between recommendations and the actual laws where you live. Every field trip for our school turned into an argument about laws that do not exist in our state. And be willing to live with the legal minimum in an emergency. If Bobby is 9 and weighs 591 / 2 pounds, Granny can pick him up from school once without the booster.


Yes, the laws and their variations do add a fun twist to this — as well as a way to end the conversation: “I can Google the laws right now. Anyone interested, or should we just go the most safety-minded route we can and leave it at that?”

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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