One of the more controversial parenting subjects that has appeared between my own childhood and the current era is the topic of leashes for children. Proponents insist that leashes increase a parent’s sense of ease in dangerous situations while providing a toddler with more range of motion than more traditional forms of restraint, such as strollers or hand-holding. Opponents feel that leashes are intrinsically debasing, since they’re used for dogs and other animals, and that they are both a symptom and a contributing factor in lazy parenting. I’m generally opposed to leashes, but I do recognize that it’s a complicated issue, and that there are potentially times when leashes are appropriate for some children.
Leashes compared to other forms of restraint
In an Attachment Parenting community discussion today, several people claimed that leashes are far better than strollers because the latter provides nearly no range of motion at all for the child. I agree that, for a child who is in the mood to explore, a leash is better than a stroller. However, I feel this argument ignores the fact that strollers weren’t designed to restrain; they were designed to provide a means of conveyance when the child is too young or too tired to walk and the caretakers are too tired to carry the child. It is certainly true that many parents rely on strollers or grocery carts as a form of lazy parenting; there have definitely been a few occasions in my son’s life where I just haven’t been up to dealing with him running all over a store when I’m trying to get a few small items. In general, though, I see using a stroller as a restraint tool as being bad parenting; occasional use is one thing, persistent use quite another.
Car seats were also mentioned in the aforementioned conversation. However, one criterion I have for whether a parenting technique is appropriate or not is whether or not there’s a comparable adult analogue. In the case of car seats, everyone in the car, no matter what age, is obliged to wear a restraint system of some sort. Infants and toddlers have a more restraining system than others, but that’s in large part because the adult seat belt system has been designed for adults, and isn’t safe for small children. For that matter, it’s not even particularly safe for adults at the extremes of size.
As for hand holding, it’s certainly a valid point that holding hands with a toddler for any extended period of time is awkward. I require my son to hold a caretaker’s hand when crossing the street or a parking lot, and that’s awkward enough for me. More often than not, I choose to carry him instead.
Another way to look at this issue is: What would I want, were I in the same position? I would like it if there were a giant stroller I could flop into when I don’t feel like walking; many a golf player has something similar. I like holding hands with my wife and child; it’s an intimate, bonding act. I wouldn’t want to be on a leash, though.
I do acknowledge that, if a parent is going to give a child the choice between a leash and a stroller (and no other choices), the leash is frequently going to be the preferred choice. However, I generally think that’s a false dilemma, since the most preferred choice for the child, freely walking without restraint, isn’t on the table.
It is definitely the case that some children have developmental obstacles which put them at a significantly higher risk in public situations. In such cases, a leash would give the added security needed by the caretaker while providing the greater range of exploration the child needs. I am less convinced about the appropriateness of leashes in situations where parents are simply too concerned about children running off or being abducted, such as airports or other crowded places, or when there are multiple children to attend to.
Leashes are for animals
One argument put forward in the aforementioned discussion is that “we leash our dogs” isn’t a sufficient argument against leashing children, because we also groom our dogs, and feed our dogs, and give our dogs shelter. My response to this is that we also groom, feed, and shelter ourselves. What makes leashing different is that we don’t leash other adults (except as an intimate, consensual, usually private act).
I don’t think it’s a trivial point. When we put a leash on an animal, we tend to trigger dominant emotions in ourselves. This is precisely why some adults choose consensually to leash each other: It’s an explicit act of exerting power in a relationship. I don’t even like leashing dogs, for that matter; overall, I prefer cats anyway, who are notoriously obstinate when leashed.
Regardless of the intentions of the caretaker, I am skeptical that most adults can fully set aside the cultural psychological interpretation of a leash. There may be the exceptional adult who can completely internalize that leashing does not intrinsically mean dominating, but I think that for most adults, some remnant of that will remain. On that level, it’s very important to ask: Is the added benefits of using a leash worth the added cost of reinforcing the power-over feeling?
Also, regardless of how the caretaker feels about a leash, leashes are most often used in public. Certainly most people in most communities see a leash as debasing, and they will carry that feeling through in any interactions they may have with the child and the caretaker. That is an unavoidable cost, and a parent is exposing their child to that cost by merely using the leash.
A caretaker who decides to use a leash on their child ought to have at least weighed the costs against the benefits. As I’ve acknowledged, there are certainly some situations where the benefits might well be greater than the costs, but I do not agree with the general sense that leashes are relatively harmless.
I have seen several parents using the leash as an excuse to ignore the child, and seen other parents dragging the child against their will. I retain the right to question such parenting as forms of abuse, as well-intentioned as some parents may be.