But when I see misuse out on the street, or in a parking lot at a store, or at school, I'm at a loss. I know those kids aren't as safe as they could be, but they're not MY kids. They're not even my friends' kids, where I might be able to make a gentle suggestion in passing. I am not confrontational by nature, and I am sure that the words of a complete stranger in the Safeway parking lot would not convince someone to change their habits anyway.
There are venues where education and knowledge are possible, however.
Share articles, videos, and images about proper car seat use and encourage friends to share them as well. If you do spot misuse in a friend's picture, send a friendly private message (no shaming, no public retribution).
Here's an idea for a gentle message you might send: "Hey, your baby is getting so big and is sooooo cute. I love the little hat he's wearing in the picture you posted! I have that exact car seat, and I had trouble figuring out how the straps should go. I went to a professional car seat installer and got the scoop. I'm not sure if you realize that the straps are supposed to be BELOW the baby's shoulders! My baby kept squirming and getting his arms out until I adjusted the straps. Also, if you tighten the straps until you can't pinch them, then it'll hold him in the seat better. They showed me that if you put the chest clip right up at his armpits, then the straps stay on his shoulders. I can't wait to see more pics of your sweet little one! Let me know if you have any other questions!"
This is likely to be fairly inoffensive, and if you "blame" your observations and information on a professional, then it's not you criticizing, it's you sharing information that you didn't have and that you found useful (even if that isn't precisely true). You may also want to include a link to a neutral third party's article or video (The Car Seat Lady is a great resource, or, of course, this very blog!). Again, the advice isn't coming from you! Just like you might say, "My doctor told us...", saying that a car seat expert told you something will probably have more power and feel less judgmental than if you jump in and say, "Hey, you're doing it wrong!"
Day Cares and Schools
My mom is a preschool teacher and often helps kids in and out of cars in the carpool line. She sees rampant misuse and isn't afraid to speak to parents about how they might improve their car seat use. As a fellow parent, you may not have that ability, but here are some ideas for ways to address misuse among other parents at your kids' schools.
Speak with the Teacher
In some schools, the teachers may not have any authority or may not be permitted to speak to parents about car seat safety. The school may not want to take on the liability for poor advice or risk angering parents with unsolicited information. However, it may be possible to share with the teacher an article or video or website that she or he can distribute to the other parents in your child's class universally, as a interesting bit of information or an issue of safety right alongside fire prevention, first aid, and stranger danger. This way, no parent is singled out, and all parents get good information. You can't control whether the parents read the articles and watch the videos, and you can't control whether they take any of it to heart and make changes, but at least you know you took some action.
Speak with the Administration
Taking things one step further up the line, you can speak to the school administration about school-wide car seat safety. If the administration is open to the idea, you might suggest having the school host a "Car Safety Day" where parents can have a CPST check their seats in the school parking lot. After all, schools often have police offers and fire fighters come to do presentations about safety. Isn't car safety equally important? (After all, car accidents are one of the leading causes of death and injury to young children!)
You may also be able to suggest that the administration to issue a newsletter or memo or include an article about car seat safety in their regular bulletin.
If you have any rapport with the fellow parent you're concerned about, you may be able to confront them directly. As in the social media example above, though, try to be kind, nonjudgmental, and helpful. "Hey, can I show you something about your car seat?" will obviously go over much better than, "Your kid is buckled wrong." Whether you choose the direct confrontation method is dependent on your own personality, the relationship you have with the other parent, and the type of person that parent is. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that he or she is open to your information, or you may find that they shut down. If you truly don't trust this person's car seat safety commitment, then, at the least, don't let your child ride in their car.
Out in Public
I unfortunately see a lot of misuse in stores and parking lots where the fellow parent is a total stranger. I have never personally approached anyone to comment on their car seat use, but there have been times where I've been tempted. If you can establish some kind of friendly contact with the person before mentioning their car seat, your information is likely to go over better. If you feel obligated to convey the information regardless, be aware that the other parent may ignore you, become angry, or argue back.
I had an experience a few years ago with a woman when I stopped into the bank to make a deposit. This experience - as the one being "advised," not the one doling out tips - gave me a lot of insight into how it feels to be approached by a stranger out of the blue.
If I were the one making a safety mistake - willingly or not - how would I want to be approached? Probably in a similar way to methods I've listed above. I'd want the person to be friendly, "on my side," and nonjudgmental. I'd want to feel that that person genuinely had my kids' safety at heart and not merely a need to feel like a superior parent. I'd want a chance to respond, ask questions, and make my case. And I'd want to leave the encounter smiling, not fuming.
Start off with a simple greeting. A smile and a friendly "hello" are always a better opener than, "You shouldn't." Use "I" statements: "I noticed..." "I was concerned..." Most importantly, don't accuse or judge! Parenting is not a competition. You are not a better parent because you know something about car seats that someone else doesn't.
I think it's important to understand that a random encounter with a stranger is probably not going to change anyone's mind. But if you give them the information and they have it confirmed by other sources, at least you planted the seed.
Do you have suggestions for addressing car seat misuse in various venues? Have you successfully approached or been approached by someone about a safety issue? In what context? Please share your experiences and your tips here in the comments or on the Facebook page!