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Should I Use a Leash on My Child?

You see it at the mall, at the airport, at Disneyland. A small child wears a monkey backpack, and the monkey’s tail is a tether held by the child’s parent. A leash.

Lots of people react pretty strongly against leashes for children. I even hear the practice described as “inhumane.” When I asked a friend about it, his tongue-in-cheek response was, “That’s how you get them to sit and stay.”

In my opinion, a leash is like so many other parenting tools and techniques. It’s not inherently good or bad. What matters is how it’s used: how it’s presented to the child, how and when the parent uses it, what the child’s temperament is, and why the parent is using it.

Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is based on the child’s past behavior.

For example, I can see why a mother of young triplets might use a leash when she takes them to a crowded store. Or why the dad of an impulsive 2-year-old who has a history of bolting might feel the need to use it in airport security because he’s also attending to a 4-year-old. In fact, I’m not sure that a leash in these cases is all that different from buckling kids into a stroller to keep them contained. And, further, it might be a better alternative to what I’ve seen in parking lots, where I sometimes see a parent yanking a child’s wrist in rough ways.

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In other words, I understand that in certain situations, a parent may have tried everything and eventually decided that a leash is the best way to protect her child until the child has a little more capacity for thinking and controlling impulses. Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is legitimately based on the child’s past behavior. I’ve talked to many caring parents who decided to use some form of a leash when it became a basic safety issue for their overly impulsive child who was, say, 18- to 36-months-old. And some parents feel that this provides them with a basic security that allows them to be more engaged and playful with their child.

However, all that being said, I do have three main concerns about using a restraining device like a leash.

It can come from misdirected motivations. It’s important to get to the bottom of why a parent is using a leash. Is it because there’s a legitimate and realistic danger or threat, given the child’s history? Or is the parent motivated more by his or her own inflated (and maybe unexamined) anxiety? If the parents can’t offer a well-thought-out rationale that explains why the leash is not only helpful but also necessary, then the parents might want to examine their own motivations. If anxiety is leading this decision, then the parents may be communicating that they don't trust themselves to keep their child safe.

It can get in the way of skill-building. We know that a person’s brain grows and evolves when we give it practice doing the same thing over and over. That means we want to give our kids opportunities to practice the skills we want them to learn. But if we insulate and protect our children too much, they won’t get a chance to develop important skills related to decision-making and responsibility.

For example, if a child is tethered to his mother in a parking lot, he won’t get the opportunity to pay attention to where his body is and where he’s going. Likewise, he won’t have as many conversations that include phrases like, “When you go around the corner, I can’t see you, and I need to see you to help you be safe.” We don’t want to take away his opportunities to make good decisions and learn what it means to be responsible.

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It can emphasize control over the relationship. On a basic survival/safety level, of course, there are times we need to step in and control our children, like when they are about to step into the street. After all, they’re not always able to make the decisions that will keep them safe and healthy.

But we can help them make good choices regarding their welfare in a way that’s respectful of who they are, and of the relationship. We can kneel down and have a conversation where we explain why it’s so important that they stay close to us. We can be playful, getting their attention by being silly before we offer the lesson. Rather than imposing a top-down, unilateral version of control, we can relationally engage with our kids and encourage cooperation through respect, direct communication and collaborative problem-solving.

Again, basic safety has to be prioritized. But my overall point is that when children are protected too much, they miss out on the relational lessons and opportunities that come with having to decide whether or not to listen and cooperate. Instead, we want to lay the groundwork for those repeated experiences where the child has to learn to pay attention and make good choices.

Going leash-less may be harder in the short run, but in the long run you’re helping your kids develop skills that will make them more safe and responsible as they head toward other dangers that can’t be avoided simply by wearing a monkey backpack.

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