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"I hate those child leashes," I used to say, whenever
I'd spot a toddler literally tethered to a nearby adult. "I'd never make my kid
wear one. That's just lazy parenting."
They only run away, I once thought, when a parent isn't paying enough attention to them.
At that, the universe
leaned in. Because I wasn't just judging a parenting practice. I
was judging other parents, too. The universe doesn't like all that judginess.
Looking back now, I can understand my initial
reaction. The very idea of a leash for a child seems ridiculous. Children aren't
dogs. They are people: nearly rational, mostly autonomous people. They have
hands that parents can hold. Rules that they can follow. Brains that they can
use. And though they can run, they can't run that fast.
They only run away, I once thought, when a parent isn't
paying enough attention to them. I held onto that assumption throughout nearly eight
years of parenting. Then, I gave birth to a runner of my own.
I don't remember the first time my youngest son darted
away from me. I can't recall exactly when I first thought to myself, "Wow! That
kid can run fast." But I do remember the first time my little runner truly
terrified me. We were at a playground with his older brothers. He
was barely 3, so I still hovered no more than 10 feet away from him. My
proximity to him didn't matter. He decided to run, and I couldn't catch him.
He skirted past a group of moms, whose outstretched arms
couldn't stop him.
He slipped outside the playground gate, sneaking past
a handful of teenage boys walking home from school. They couldn't catch him
I finally caught up to him a full block away, not far
from the street. He was giggling. I was furious and frightened.
They aren't dogs, but they can be as impulsive as dogs.
It wasn't the only time I've had to chase him. I've
chased him up and down grocery aisles, strapping him into the grocery cart—tightly—once
I've reached him. I've chased him out the entrance of our community pool,
panicking until I could put my body between him and the parking lot. I've even
chased him out our front door at 7:30 a.m., barefoot and in my pajamas. I
probably woke up the neighborhood with my shouting, "Stop! Stop right now! You
can't run out of the house just because you're angry! You stop! You stop now!
He didn't stop until I stopped him and slung him over
my shoulders and carried him home like a sack of potatoes. A very squirmy, stubborn and fast sack of potatoes.
The problem, I've realized, isn't just that he's a
runner. It's also that he doesn't think. A child under 5 can't completely appreciate
the dangers of running away from their parents, especially toward a busy
street. They aren't dogs, but they can be as impulsive as dogs. They are nearly
rational and mostly autonomous, but that's precisely the problem: they aren't
fully rational, and they certainly aren't in absolute control of their actions.
All of these qualities make young runners especially