Family

End of the Rope

Runaway toddlers are a danger to themselves and the world. Leashes are an obvious solution. So why do some parents find them so offensive?

Person walking a dog looking with scorn at a person with a child on a leash.
Franco Zacharzewski

For the first 18 months of my child’s life, we attended our popular local farmers market with her in an Ergobaby carrier and me pushing a folding cart full of purchases. When she got too big and vigorous for the Ergo, I had a decision to make: Strap her in a stroller and try to stuff all my purchases in its much smaller basket? Or let her walk and keep my big cart, a convenience to which I had become attached? Thinking it might be good for her, a small-town child, to get some practice walking in crowds, I chose the latter.

J. generally kept by my side and held my hand when I requested it. But there was one day when she saw samples of fudge laid out invitingly at her eye level in a stall down the row. She took off like a shot, darting between bystanders, completely oblivious to all of my calls to come back. That same week, I happened to read a tragic story from Kansas City, Missouri, about a 3-year-old who broke away from his parent, ran into a busy street, and was struck and killed. There were no cars near us when J. made a run for it, but what if there had been? Suddenly, I understood why people use child leashes—and I wondered why I’d always assumed I wasn’t the sort of parent to buy one.

I posted a query about members’ histories of using child leashes or harnesses in our Slate Parenting Facebook group and found that more respondents had used them than I had ever imagined possible. Reasons varied, but people said these kinds of things: I had a toddler and a little baby, was in postpartum recovery, and physically couldn’t run after the kid; I have arthritis and can’t hold hands easily; I think they get more exercise than they would in a stroller; a stroller is very inconvenient to take many places in my city; my kid has ASD or ADHD and elopes. Member Julia Schmidt Harris made an argument typical of the enthusiastic harness users: “I always said I would never use a leash on a child, then we were visiting the Grand Canyon with our basically obedient, but still just 4-years-old, little boy. Before leaving on the trip I learned what is probably obvious to everyone else, but was terrifying news to me, that there is no railing at the Grand Canyon! If grown people fall to their death there, was I willing to bet on his obedience to keep him safe? Nope.”

Toddler on a leash walking over a tightrope suspended over magical creatures.
Franco Zacharzewski

Yet, right in the middle of all this affirmation, a few people dove in to comment negatively, saying things like: Children are people, not property; children are people, not dogs. I realized that, without ever really considering the issue in detail, I unconsciously feared exactly this kind of judgment. That was why I hadn’t even thought of a harness when I faced the yearslong gulf between the era of the baby carrier and of calm acquiescence to extended stroller confinement, and whatever age my child’s brain gains more reliable impulse control. (I hear that’s coming, at 4? Maybe 5? Please inform.) Looking at the turmoil in the Facebook group, I realized that somehow, the child leash has become a bright flashpoint in our parental culture wars. How did this happen, and is there any way of knowing for sure which side is in the right?

While a full scholarly history of the child leash doesn’t seem to exist yet, what I could find suggests that the child leash or harness may have been an invention of the 1930s. In 1939, the cover of the magazine Woman’s Home Companion featured an illustration of a gorgeous rosy-cheeked toddler with a harness on—a choice of cover model I take to mean that the device was socially acceptable at the time. (This is, for what it’s worth, a hypothesis backed up by the anecdotal memories of older posters in the Slate Parenting group, who described their parents using leashes without fear of public scolding in the later midcentury period.) But sometime around the late 1980s or early 1990s, public opinion turned against the child leash.

“Keeping an able-bodied walking baby tucked in his carriage may keep him out of trouble, but it cramps his style and hinders his development,” Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote in the 1973 edition of his Baby and Child Care. “Some parents find a harness is very practical for shopping and walks at this age. It shouldn’t be used for hitching him in one place for long.” (“Hitching”? That’s a new one!) By 1992, however, the doctor had changed this section, sounding a note of caution. “Some parents feel they will be accused of treating their toddler like a dog if they’re out in public with a harness on the child and are holding a ‘leash’ that’s attached to the harness,” Spock wrote. “It seems to me,” the doctor continued, appearing confused, “that the parent who happens to have an especially active toddler, particularly if there is also a younger child in the family, can use such a harness arrangement as a very effective safety measure while shopping in supermarkets or other places where toddlers can easily do damage to themselves or the merchandise!”

You can see further evidence that public judgment of leashes emerged around this time by looking to TV. In 1992, the Simpsons episode “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” provided leash-shamers with a dependable cultural reference. In the course of the episode, Homer’s half-brother develops a product that translates baby speech to adult English. At a baby convention, where he’s hawking his invention, a child walking by on a leash babbles something that the device translates into “This leash demeans us both!”

The 1990s were also when the toy-style safety leash came on the market. Unlike older styles that were more straightforwardly utilitarian in design, the toy/leash is an object blending function and fun, that gives a parent some cover for harnessing the child. (Today, a popular style of this kind combines a cute, fun backpack and a leash.) In a patent for a “combination toy and child safety line” filed in 1995, the inventor described the object as having some capacity to camouflage its leashing function: “Restricts the range of motion of a child while providing storage capability, entertainment and social acceptability” (emphasis mine).

Is there data to back up this now-common perception that the leash is, somehow, demeaning? I asked Ben Hoffman, a pediatrician and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, whether there was any research on the effects of use of child leashes, and he said he didn’t think there was. Lacking data, he sounded as unsure as I am about whether leashes are “bad” for children. “We know a lot about kids’ development, and the fact that kids are super impulsive. They’re quick. They’re just curiosity machines, and they seek opportunities to learn limits,” he said. Looked at in one way, he reasoned, using a leash deprives them of those opportunities. Hoffman said that he and his wife wouldn’t use a leash with their children but was quick to add that this was a personal choice. “It would have made us feel like we were treating our children like pets. I’m not suggesting that that’s how other parents see it, and I’m not trying to sound judgmental,” he hastened to add. He seemed willing to settle on the idea that a leash could be a sometimes thing: “I would rather think about a leash as an exceptional measure than the norm.”

I was curious to know what Janet Lansbury, a writer, parenting expert, and probably the most prominent public representative of the school of thought called “respectful parenting,” might think about the idea of a leash. “Respectful parenting” is driven by a combination of ideas that sometimes makes perfect sense to me—I swear I’m a 75 percent happier parent for having read Lansbury’s book before my daughter was even born—and is sometimes confusing as hell. In authoritative (rather than authoritarian, or permissive) parenting styles like this one, the idea is to treat your child with dignity, while keeping her developmental status in mind and acting with firm leadership to establish schedules and boundaries when it’s necessary. The confusion, at least for me, lies in that “when it’s necessary” part. Is the child leash “respectful,” because it recognizes that a toddler’s impulse control is not well-developed and her body wants to be running? Or is it “disrespectful,” because it clearly displays the child’s subordinate status to all the world?

When I asked her about the harness question, Lansbury was less interested in saying yes or no, definitively, to a leash, and more interested in how the leash might be used. She talked about what a harness might do to the connection between the parent and child, adding to Hoffman’s observation about the teaching moments you get when you go out in public with an unleashed small child. “We want children to learn, in these situations, that you can’t just follow every thought and stop along the way, and lose awareness of the people that you’re with,” she said. (Yes, daughter, even if that thought is “Fudge!!!”) Lansbury said that holding hands with an adult can also give a child a sense of warmth: “Even if you’re in a very crowded situation and it’s a little bit stressful, you have a connection there with your adult loved one: We’re here in this whole crowd of people, and we’re together. We’re looking out for each other.” But you could leash or harness a child who bolts, and still retain this connection in other ways—by holding their hand and treating the leash as a backup, speaking with them before the trip about your plans and expectations, and talking them through what you’re doing.

Lansbury added that she had spoken with parents of children with some sensory processing issues, who found that holding hands tightly didn’t give their kids enough sense of space.
(One poster on the message board Circle of Moms, writing about her experience parenting a child with autism and using a leash, wrote: “My son likes to put it on when we walk [because] he can’t stand me grabbing at him or holding his hand. … He can run fast and doesn’t come just because you yell his name.”) “I always try to understand where someone’s coming from, and stay open to where it might work,” Lansbury said. “Because the most important thing is that a parent breathe deeply and be comfortable.”

She’s talking about doing whatever lets you stay vigilant, yet calm and collected—that optimum toddler-parent mindset, which is so easy to achieve in simple circumstances but gets exponentially more difficult the more variables you add to a situation. For some, the leash does seem to have this effect. “I took them with me when I bought the halters (leashes),” a mother of twins wrote on the Circle of Moms board about her decision to leash her two while grocery shopping. “I wish I could show you the decrease in tension. … I am more relaxed because I do not have to hang onto my kids for their dear lives and they are not forever clinging onto me and fighting because there is no space for the other one. We all shop a bit more relaxed.”

It’s worth noting that the shaming of leash users has something of a class dimension. In her 2010 study of parents’ attitudes toward technological means of surveilling and controlling children (Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times), sociologist Margaret K. Nelson didn’t ask her parent interviewees—groups of whom she designated as “professional middle-class,” “middle-class,” and “working-class—about the more conventional types of child harnesses I’m talking about here. But she did include a section on the electronic child-locating systems that were then just coming on the market: The kind where you have one unit, and your child has another, and your device beeps when your child exceeds a given distance from you, then enables you to locate them. Because of the newness of the technology, the parents in this study weren’t reporting on their own use of such child locators but instead giving reactions to a description of their capabilities.

Toddler on a leash reaching for a star in outer space.
Franco Zacharzewski

Nelson found that there was a strong divide between classes in her respondents’ attitudes to the idea of such a system. Professional middle-class parents roundly rejected the idea of a child locator. They had, Nelson writes, “a commitment to alternative methods of control,” and believed that “psychological and moral training directed by the parents” was better than “physical constraint.” She heard these parents describe what they might do instead to make sure their child didn’t wander too far in a park. “It was clear that they believe in starting control early; they also discount the notion that changing people might ultimately be more ‘controlling’ than changing the situation itself,” Nelson observed. “The same parents who worry about pushing their children too hard and too early also believe that children can act in an adult manner when they are very young.” Working- and middle-class parents were a bit more interested in the idea—though, Nelson makes clear, only fewer than half of them said they might try such a child locator. Of those who were open to it, Nelson writes, “they view it quite simply, as something that would make their lives easier.”

Shaming of harnesses and leashes definitely aligns with our ideology of “intensive mothering,” as defined by sociologist Sharon Hays in her 1996 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood—a way of thinking that emphasizes the responsibility of individual mothers, while insisting that motherhood has to be expensive, difficult, and exhausting, because that’s “just the way it is.” The most telling comment Slate Parenting members made in response to my query came from member Erin Michelle, who said that she noticed a big difference in public response to her and her toddler son, between their leashless outings and their leashed ones. “When my son is walking free and I’m scrambling to keep him safe and not accomplishing the point of being ‘out’ to begin with (groceries, visiting with someone, a nice jaunt) he gets big smiles from everyone we pass,” she reflected.

When he has on his monkey harness I get stone cold no reaction. It’s super weird but all I can think is that folks like to see a momma scramble. We like when she does that puff her bangs out of her face thing and we can give her that “oh, the young of our kind, how tricky they are when they act like noodles and somehow disappear their armpits” look. But when she’s got shit to do and the means to keep that baby from running away they don’t feel proud of that at all.

After the 2016 death of the gorilla Harambe, when Cincinnati zookeepers saved the life of a 3-year-old who had wandered into an enclosure by shooting and killing the animal, the internet harassed the child’s mother mercilessly. In this case, the preschooler wasn’t wearing a leash or harness, and the mother was wrangling several other kids. “The idea that we should be able to ‘manage’ our children, as if they are reasonable adults and not semi-feral animals covered in germs and fueled by destruction, is laughable,” Ijeoma Oluo wrote in defense of the child’s mother in the Guardian. “But we perpetrate these myths, and whenever the truth becomes unavoidable, we shame the mother instead of looking at the situation honestly.”

I see it this way: Toddlers are semi-feral, yes, but also, our world is not built for toddlers. I didn’t appreciate this disconnect before I had a child, but now I observe it constantly. Working parents’ schedules don’t allow for a slow family dinner and wind down, followed by a nice early bedtime between 7 and 8 p.m., as is ideal for a little one; isolated nuclear families, living far from support networks, can be stressed beyond limit by the demands of their children, especially if they have more than one under 5 and/or kids with functional needs related to a disability; car-centric streets and shopping centers make trips out a trial. Even places that are supposedly “for kids,” like zoos or Disneyland, are so overstimulating and crowded that a visit there with a toddler seems like more trouble than it’s worth. The child leash is a technological adaptation that lets you take a wiggly, impulsive firecracker of a human out into a big world that’s designed for predictable adults. I have the small-town, parent-of-one privilege of being able to choose handholding for most occasions. But to those who do leash, even when people stare: I salute you.

Thanks to Meredith Bak and Alexandra Lange for their research suggestions for this piece.