Because I’m not a parent, my general policy on parenting-related topics is that my opinion is worthless and that everything is probably a lot more challenging than it looks. I do have a seven-year-old niece who I wish was my child (if my sister is reading this: watch your back) and some general experience being around children, but basically, I don’t know shit.
Despite this, before I even had a niece, I long felt judgmental toward people who kept their children on what’s essentially a leash. These products typically look like stuffed animal backpacks, where a fluffy monkey or panda sits on the back of the child and is strapped around their chest and shoulders. Some harnesses lack the cute animal feature, while others function more like long handcuffs wherein both the child and parent are locked to each other. I most commonly saw this at state fairs, and maybe at the mall once or twice. My thinking was always something along the lines of, “What, you can’t manage to control your own child?”
Since then, I’ve realized I’m probably wrong: A leash seems like an excellent way for young children to develop a sense of independence without their parents worrying about them getting lost. Particularly in a fairground environment or a mall where there’s lots of people and lots of bright and shiny things to attract a child’s attention, a leash just seems like a logical way to make sure your kid doesn’t get lost without you needing to hunch over to hold their hand all the time. They get a taste of freedom, and you don’t have to worry about them getting abducted.
Still, there are plenty of parents, doctors, parenting experts and everyday folks on both sides of the debate. So when it comes to “child leashes,” is there a right and wrong answer?
On Amazon reviews for the products, many exhausted parents explain that, like me, they were once critical of their use. “I used to judge parents who ‘leashed’ their kids… until I had a toddler who thinks it’s funny to run off,” wrote Lisa in 2017. “This is great because I also have a baby, so at times I just attach it to the stroller while pushing her. My son loves it because he thinks he’s a train and asks to wear it. Great for amusement parks, boardwalks and all those types of busy places.”
Others explain that while they often receive judgmental looks from strangers, it’s worth it for the peace of mind. “As a mother of 2-year-old twins I find it hard to keep up with them when shopping,” wrote Chellycee in 2014. “This is a perfect way to keep them from wandering too far. I just ignore the stupid strangers making comments about comparing it to a dog’s leash. Their safety is more important than the naysayers. Plus, my boys love their new little backpacks!”
Positive reviews from parents are one thing, but what do parenting experts and doctors think of the practice? “First, I don’t like calling them child leashes,” says Amy McCready, founder of PositiveParentingSolutions.com. “It may sound like semantics, but I call them child safety straps. Some parents have resistance to using a safety strap because they equate it with treating the child like a dog. But in my mind, it’s really no different than a stroller — it’s simply a way to control the environment and keep the child safe and close to you, but has the added benefit of giving the child freedom to move within a specific boundary from you.”
In Reddit threads on the controversy, some have argued that if you can’t stop your child from running away from you, you’re a bad parent (because as ever on Reddit, there are no shades of grey or nuance to be considered under any circumstances). But McCready argues that a harness can be a better option than repeatedly trying to discipline your child for wanting freedom.
“A safety strap is so much more empowering for the child than constantly saying, ‘Come back here!’ or holding him so tight that he feels constrained,” she says. “Why have this big power struggle when you can keep your child secure while still giving them some freedom? It’s a win-win situation — the parents feel confident that their child is safe, and the child feels like they have some control over their own body at that moment.”
In an April 2019 article for Good Housekeeping, however, Benjamin Hoffman, chair of the injury prevention council at the American Academy of Pediatrics, stated he doesn’t believe parents should use them. “We don’t have data on injuries associated with the leashes, but we also lack information about why parents use them, and what any benefit might be,” he says. “As a pediatrician, I’m not happy to see children leashed like pets. 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.”
He clarifies, though, that it’s ultimately a matter of how the parents use them. Specifically, it’s important that people don’t see leashes as an alternative to vigilant parenting. “I’ve personally witnessed parents pull back forcefully on a leash, resulting in a fall, often backward. I worry about injuries to head and limbs in that scenario,” he says in the article.
But that should be common sense: Don’t hurt your kid.
Michele Borba, author of 22 books on parenting and raising empathetic children, agrees with McCready that leashes can have their place, and most importantly, we ought to respect a parent’s decision to use them. “Let’s stop judging each other,” she says. “We’re all in this role of parenting together and there is no more difficult job. No one knows a child better than a parent. So let’s assume the parent has great intentions and wants their child to be an explorer and safe. The leash is the best way to do so. There are so many other things to worry about.”
If you decide to leash your toddler, then, it’s probably fine. When they’re little, they likely won’t care or remember. Of course, if being on a leash hurts them or embarrasses them, stop. Otherwise, do what you’ve gotta do to make sure your child doesn’t run into traffic.