Recent debate has come up over on my instagram account about whether or not it is appropriate to put a backpack leash on a child and this blog post will discuss my arguments against children wearing leashes.
To preface, I am an early childhood expert with 2 decades of research, practice and education working with young children of various economic backgrounds, ethnicities and abilities. I have worked with young children one-on-one and in groups. I am a mother of 3 children. I have a master's degree in early childhood education.
As an early childhood expert, I usually see things through the eyes of children and the following experience was no different. On a recent trip to Disneyland with my family, I noticed a good number of young children on leashes and it made me very uncomfortable. I asked myself why this bothered me so much. It wasn't the first time I had seen parents using a leash to keep their children tethered. I know the reason is for perceived safety.
But I couldn't help wondering,
"what message do we send children when we put a leash on them"?
I would never recommend or condone putting a leash on a child no matter the circumstances.
When you put your child on a leash you are sending them some negative messages:
I don't trust you. Children develop best when they are securely attached to their caregivers and share a relationship of mutual respect. I don't think any parent trusts their 18-month old not to wander off in public places. However, that mistrust is not something we want to tell our children. Because if we want them to gain independence and foster self-esteem and self-efficacy, we want them to feel as though we trust them. Putting a leash on them doesn't show children that we trust them.
You aren't capable. More of the building self-esteem message here. When you put a leash on your child, you are telling them that they aren't capable of walking on their own. This fosters dependency. The fact is children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.
I am not capable. I am not capable of keeping you safe while we are out in public therefore you must be tethered to me. Again let's go back to attachment. Attachment is the foundation of all learning and mental health. Secure or healthy attachment is the foundation that lets your child explore the world and have a safe place to come back to. This is a big one and one we want to make sure we get right. Leashes don't support healthy attachments.
You are in the same category as the family dog. Child psychologist and researcher Jean Piaget talked about the process of assimilation. This is when children attempt to interpret new information within the framework of existing knowledge. Chances are, a toddler has seen a dog on a leash in their neighborhood or at the park. So when they have already seen animals on leashes, and then one is put on their body, they can feel as though they are in the same category as a dog. You may not see it that way, but they likely will. And just because their leash is camouflaged by a cute little turtle backpack (dogs have harnesses too), it doesn't make it okay.
I am superior, you are inferior. This isn't 1924 and we know better now. When you take on the "Do as I say, not as I do" mentality, you jeopardize your attachment and create walls between you and your child.
The truth is…
Children are wildly capable.
Children are worthy of respect.
Children understand boundaries with consistency and unwavering confidence from you.
Leashes for children may keep them safe in one regard, while posing a safety hazard in another. Leashes can cause children to trip and fall and they can also present a choking hazard. While researching this topic, I wasn't able to find any data on leash usage, but I was able to find articles with advice from pediatricians about leashes. There are MANY pediatricians out there that point out the safety concerns when using a leash on a child.
Don't just take my word for it. Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., F.A.A.P., chair of the injury prevention council at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). He doesn't think that parents should use leashes either.
"As a pediatrician, I'm not happy to see children leashed like pets," he says. "As the father of three, I am well aware of how quick, impulsive, and unpredictable kids can be. But from an injury standpoint, I would worry about entanglement or choking — we know the risks of other loose 'cords,' like on window blinds."
There's also the risk of accidentally tripping your child with the tether. "I've personally witnessed parents pull back forcefully on a leash, resulting in a fall, often backwards," Dr. Hoffman says. "I worry about injuries to the head and limbs in that scenario. As a pediatrician, I would never recommend them. I would rather see a child in a stroller than on a leash."
What about children with special needs?
I am aware of the fact that children who are neurodivergent or have other special needs have tendencies to elope (bolt off without notice). Friends, all children deserve respect and in my opinion that's the bottom line. I don't want to get into it much more in this blog post because we can go round and round but I still believe that all children deserve respect and to me, leashing them doesn't show respect for their mind or body. This is my opinion and I stand by it.
I received the following comment on instagram and I'd like to respond to it here.
"It could be a child who elopes, or a parent with a medical issue/obese, or heck even laziness, I still commend parents for trying to keep their children safe"
I will start by saying that I have fallen into one or more of these "categories" many times throughout my life. My current BMI is in the obese range. I've been pregnant with a 2 and 5 year old. It's still a no for me. Laziness is never a reason to use a leash on a child. Just no.
If you don't have the physical and mental energy it takes to hold on to your child's hand securely, put them in the stroller or teach them how to hold on to the shopping cart/stroller/your hand OR teach them to stay close by you, then stay home! Or leave them at home with a babysitter. Get your groceries delivered and try again in a few months when you are no longer 9 months pregnant with pelvic pain. Children develop rapidly and this too shall pass. They may not be developmentally ready to understand that running off is dangerous right now, but next month it might become crystal clear to them. Try again. I can't tell you how many months we avoided restaurants with each of my children because they developmentally couldn't sit still for an hour and they just weren't ready. So we didn't go out to eat for a while. Then a month or two later, we tried again with a "faster" type of restaurant to see how it went. We were consistent with our boundaries. And eventually they were developmentally ready and they had learned from practicing what behavior was acceptable at a restaurant.
Talk to Your Children
Don't be afraid to have a conversation with your young children about why they must stay right next to you and what could happen if they don't. Don't be afraid to have this conversation over and over and over again until they get it. Children understand so much.
I have told my own children and classrooms of children things like,
"You must stay close to me the whole time or we will have to leave."
"You must stay close to me or you could get lost"
"You must stay close to me or you will go back in the stroller"
"You have to hold my hand because this is a crowded place and it isn't safe for you to walk without holding my hand. If you can't hold my hand, we will have to leave."
"There are cars close by so you must hold my hand. Cars are dangerous and you could get hurt very badly"
"A stranger may take you away if you aren't right next to me"
And then if they don't stay close to you, LEAVE. Follow through. Wait a year or two for the theme park or county fair if you are concerned about them bolting off.
I promise you, they will get it. Maybe not from the first conversation, but soon they will. And when you approach them in this manner you are showing them that they matter. That you love and care about them and want to keep them safe. Not that you're just exerting authority, but that you have their very best interest at heart.
Alternatives to Leashes on Children
Practicing appropriate proximity to you at a safe place (like a park that is far away from the road).
Have your child hold on to an object you hook onto your purse or the cart when you ask them to, like this: Carabiner
And if you absolutely must tether your child to you–if you've tried everything and simply cannot avoid going to a crowded place, then try something like this where it shows the child that you are tethered to each other. Not leashed in the same way that pets are. This would be an absolute last resort for rare occasions though.
Parenting is hard. It is a sacrifice. And sometimes sacrificing SUCKS. It sucks not being able to go to the grocery store like we used to without the added stress of keeping our eyes and ears on our little ones. It sucks craving that salad from your favorite restaurant but not being able to go there because you have a toddler who throws food and screams sometimes. But take it from me, your children will grow older and be able to walk around a theme park safely with you before you know it.
These tiny humans did not ask to be brought into this world. And if we are to foster all the mentally healthy things we want for them–confidence, love, trust, honesty, respect, resilience– we have to give them time and space to learn and grow with respect. Plain and simple, leashes are not respectful to young children.
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