I love Today’s Parent. I don’t always agree with everything in it, but it’s always a good read, and gosh-dang-it, y’all know I’m a sucker for any kind of child development material!
The topic of this month’s “Debate” column is “Should you use a leash to control your toddler?” and I felt it missed the mark. I was frankly offended by Nadine Silverthorne’s assertion that “parents who use leashes look lazy,” and although Amy Morrison’s “Yes” column made a great case for leashes, I was saddened by the caveat that she never actually used one herself due to fear of judgement – a fear that was clearly justified!
Since Today’s Parent hasn’t been able to find anyone willing to admit to actually using a toddler leash, I feel compelled (anyone surprised by that?) to add my own two cents!
Although I use the term “toddler leash” facetiously among friends, it is not at all the same as an animal leash. There is no “obedience training” involved and it is not a punitive device used to jerk back a disobedient pet to ensure compliance born out of fear of a repeat performance. A toddler “leash” or harness is a safety device that allows your child the freedom of walking a few steps away from you while giving you the means to respond effectively to any unexpected danger.
Toddlers value independence above all else. The “Terrible Twos” exist because it is around that age that children first learn to do for themselves, at their own pace, and heaven help the parent who says, “Just let me do it for you!” Is it really fair to strap your fearless little explorer into a 5-point stroller harness just because he or she is too dazzled by the wonderful world around him or her to stop dead every time you shout, “Freeze!”?
Going back to the statement that toddler leash-toting parents “look lazy,” I asked my own mother, who, as a full-time doctor and mother of 3 in the 1980’s is the least lazy person I know (Case in point: She recently returned to work on crutches 9 days after breaking her hip in a skiing accident), what she thinks of parents who use toddler leashes. She responded dryly, “Karyn, if I hadn’t used a toddler leash, your brother Chris wouldn’t be around today.”
When Ben was a toddler, I kept his lightweight harness in my diaper bag, ready to throw on him any time the situation warranted. If I was going to be wandering the Eaton’s Centre or downtown Toronto, or taking a trip to a train station or waterfront with a 2 year-old, you bet your bippy I’d have that leash at the ready!
It was the best option for both of us – Ben was free to explore without being stuck in the stroller or having his hand held (just take a minute to imagine how uncomfortable it must be to have someone much taller than you holding your hand up above your head until it falls asleep, gripping it hard enough that you can’t pull away) and I had the security of knowing that I could stop him if he suddenly bolted towards a hazard.
There are certain situations in which even the most anti-leash parent would be unlikely to argue that a safety harness isn’t a good idea:
(For the record, the harness Ben is wearing in the preceding photograph is actually an adult boating harness intended for sailboat racing – safety devices ain’t just for toddlers, y’know.)
And how about in the case of special needs children? If you don’t think that’s appropriate, take a minute to walk a mile in some other parents’ shoes by reading the testimonials on this website from users of special needs child-to-adult harnesses. Or take it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak:
I’ve got the best harness in the world. When I first got it I didn’t like wearing it, but now I love my harness. I never get lost and I don’t have to keep holding hands all the time and its comfortable to wear. Big kids and little kids should wear a harness because you are never too old to be kept safe. And I love the colours.
– Tyler, Australia, Age 9, http://www.childharness.ca/testimonials.html
There are important guidelines to follow when using a toddler harness:
1. The whole idea is to give your child the freedom to explore on his or her own terms, so try to follow at his or her pace and guide your child with your words (“Time to go this way! Come on!”). Your child is not a puppy, and the harness is not an choke-chain, so do not jerk him or her back to you.
2. If you aren’t holding the harness, tuck it firmly out of the way, and take it off completely if your child is playing on something like a climber or slide where it could become a strangulation hazard.
3. When it comes to wrist straps, just don’t: If you can manage to get them tight enough to stay on, they’re just a broken wrist waiting to happen.
4. And of course, make sure that you come prepared with pithy rejoinders for those inevitable judgments, such as,
“Well, the breeder suggested that we try this first, but if his behaviour doesn’t improve soon, it’s off to obedience school!”
“Dear God! You’re right! This isn’t my dachshund Olympus – it’s my neighbour’s kid! I can’t believe I did it AGAIN!”
Or the classic, “You know what they say about people in glass houses.”
As Nadine Silverthorne points out, it is our job as parents to teach our children “the rules,” including the expectation that when we say “Freeze,” they will. I say that even more importantly, it is our job to know our own children and to keep them safe whether they are listening or not. The call-and-response method that she describes is an excellent training tool, but at the toddler age it is simply not foolproof. There is always potential for distraction, and the use of a toddler leash can ensure that a moment’s impulsiveness doesn’t turn into a life-altering tragedy.
~ karyn (aka that horrible, lazy, toddler-leash-using mom everybody love to judge!)