Confessions of a child-leashing mother

Claire McCarthyI have an embarrassing confession to make: I put my daughter on a leash.

Before you start thinking that I treat my children like dogs, let me explain about my daughter. Elsa (she’s nearly 13 now, and leashless for a very long time) hated strollers. We carried her in our arms or in a sling when she was a baby, but the moment she could walk, that’s all she wanted to do. And Elsa was an intrepid explorer who would routinely head off on her own. I think she assumed that when she was done exploring she’d turn around and my husband or I would be there.

If she’d been an only child, that would have been easier to pull off. But Elsa entered her Intrepid Explorer phase when Michaela and Zack were 6 and 5. They were not (thank goodness) intrepid explorers, but they were young enough to occasionally need my attention in public places—sometimes, unfortunately, at exactly the moment that Elsa set off on an expedition. Because my husband works on weekends, I was often by myself with the three of them at the zoo or museum or store. After a few terrifying episodes when I was sure she had been kidnapped (my heart still races when I think about the time when I lost her in CVS), I decided that desperate measures were warranted. So I bought a harness that had a leash attached to it.

This revolutionized outings for me. I no longer had to worry about losing Elsa, and I could interact more with Michaela and Zack instead of spending my time chasing Elsa and shouting to them to follow me. The first few times we used it Elsa played with it to see if she could get it off (she couldn’t), but then she adapted to it quite nicely. Occasionally she’d pull to go in a different direction, but we’d distract her (“Elsa, let’s go this way and see the LIONS!”) and she’d happily trot along with us.

leash
Savior for busy parents or treating a child like a pet? Kids on leashes stir strong feelings.

I got lots of weird looks (especially when Michaela or Zack would ask, “Can I have a turn walking Elsa?”). Some of them were pleasant; many people laughed. But many were definitely not pleasant. A few were clearly horrified.

For what it’s worth, she’s the only one of my children who needed a leash. Natasha never wandered far from my side, and although Liam was another intrepid explorer, by the time he was born there were enough older siblings around that I could always deputize someone to track him on his expeditions. But when Elsa was a toddler, the leash was what I needed to keep her safe and be a better parent to the others.

That’s the thing: the horrified ones never asked why I was using the leash. They labeled me a terrible mom without knowing the whole story. Which, actually, is pretty common; we all jump to judgments sometimes. But parenthood is hard, and complicated, with curve balls coming at you all the time. Every parent chooses his or her own solutions to problems. Just because someone’s solutions are different from ours doesn’t mean they are wrong.

And sometimes, instead of judging, we should offer to help. Not that I would necessarily have deputized strangers to track Elsa. But some of those terrifying moments of nearly losing her could have been avoided if someone had noticed she was wandering way from me and said something, or brought her to a security guard, or looked for her with me. Nobody did anything. Maybe, if people had helped, I wouldn’t have needed a leash.

Once, when Zack was about a month old, I took him and then 19-month-old Michaela to the park. Zack was hungry, so I settled Michaela in the sandbox and began to nurse him. Just as he latched on, Michaela left the sandbox and went to the slides. So I took Zack off my breast—which made him start crying—and went to a seat near the slides. Just when I started nursing again, Michaela went back to the sandbox. As I stood up with a now screaming Zack, a mother came over to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Nurse the baby. I’ll watch your daughter.” I nearly cried myself, I was so grateful. Moments like these make such a difference in the life of a parent.

So the next time you see something that looks strange to you—like a kid on a leash—stop before you judge. There just might be a really reasonable explanation. And, more importantly, there might be something you can do to help.

To hear what other paretns are saying on this topic check out the comments on our Facebook page. Parent discussion and information sharing is great, seems in the digital age  it takes a virtual village to raise a child.

  • Keirnan Conroy Klosek

    Great post! I used a harness on my then 19 month old daughter when I was 8+ months pregnant and we went to Disney with her and my then 4 year old. The amazing thing was, I was horrified about having to admit I needed one but got there and realized just about ever two year old at Disney was on one! 😉

  • Jexica999

    I completely understand you. I have a 4 years old daughter and a 2 yrs old son. my husband works two shift so i am bymyself most of the time. My daughter has autism and doesnt talk yet or have a way of comunicate. The problem with her is that she likes to run away from me in public places and the moment her brother notice what she did he will do the same but in different direction. I had expend a lot of money on double stroller but they always find a way to unbuckle themselft. everytime i went out with them i will return home with a terrible headache. i was always afraid that one of them will get lost, hurt or kidnaped. now i got a leach and things are working much better. i dont care what people think, and believe me i have got a lot of disaproval looks, but the only thing that matters to me is the safety of my kids

  • Misscat6904

    i have 5 kids i would used it to if i had to make sure my kids r safe to

  • I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about it. You and countless other parents are doing what they can to keep their child safe. Simple as that.

  • City1260

    If you need to put your child on a leash, the real answer there is to produce fewer offspring.

  • Dondrea

    Claire, I love to read your articles!!

  • RB

    Regarding your comment on treating children like dogs.

    People put their dogs on leashes for two (or three) reasons.

    1) To keep their dog from bothering other people

    2) Really the same as #1 – because the law says so

    3) To keep their dog safe (out of traffic, etc.)

    #3 is really the same as saying that you love and want to protect your dog. In that case, why is it even a problem to treat your child like a dog in that respect?

    One last thought – another word for leash is a “lead.” May be a more appropriate way to think about it. You are really leading your child to safety rather than leashing them to you…

  • Raccoonsews

    When my oldest was about 5 he took off when my back was turned in the mall. He left the store and my Mom and I were frantic. We got the mall cop involved until some nice lady noticed him hiding in the store across the way peeking out the window as we shouted for him. I was so angry I was shaking…after I got a hold of him and gave him the lecture of his young life,I told him I would buy a harness and leash if that was the way he was going to behave. He dared me…but I think the look I gave him convinced him I was not kidding. I would never criticize a parent for using any kind of tool to keep their child safe…there are a lot of nasty people out there.

  • Instead of being so hypocritical of people why not become a foster helper for these people that need a helping hand. It is better than losing a child, in this day and time with all the “weird and strange” people out there just waiting to latch onto a lost child, so think about it before you criticize a person for such thing’s and realize it is for the child’s own welfare and the sanity of the parent!

  • Jkerravala

    AMEN! I am another of thos bad mommy types. We used a harness and leash with our oldest. He is 22 months older than his younger brother and also would not sit in a stroller. He never minded the harness which he called his harney and would cry if we went out without it fearing that he wasn’t going with us. I recieved my share of “dog” comments from people and I would always just answer back to them that I would rather a child on a leash than one who had run out into traffic and was struck. My son is 13 now and has no trama associated with the harness. He is healthy and fine so critics be damned!

  • Emmluu

    When my oldest was 2, I bought a leash for her. It was one that attached to her wrist with Velcro and I didn’t use it for too long because she knew how to get out of it. She wasn’t difficult in terms of running away from me and I felt I could easily teach her to stay with me when we went places.

    Fast forward 20 years later. My 3 year old is not only an Intrepid Explorer, she just takes off without realizing where she is going. I’m always afraid she will run out into traffic, into someone’s driveway when a car is backing out or get kidnapped if I get distracted. This is why I am grateful for shopping carts at the supermarket and online shop for clothing.

    My opinion of parents who use leases is not that they are terrible people but lazy people. Oftentimes when I see a leash being used the parent(s) are with one child. I have felt that part of parenthood is having to chase after your child, teach them to stay with you and listen to you when you tell them to stay with you. My daughter has to hold my hand (or whomever she is with) wherever we go. She is not allowed to walk ahead or behind. If I have to walk at her pace, I do so. Sometimes I do have to pull her in the direction I am going, but I feel it is better than doing so with a leash.

    After reading this article and some of the comments made, I have to say I really didn’t think about things in terms of people with more than one child and autism. I have only one child. I feel I don’t really need a leash (although one would help immensely when shopping carts are not available and I may want to shop for clothing in a store instead of online) because I feel I am supposed to be able to handle her myself. I want to teach her to know she is supposed to stay with me and have her be able to do that herself. I realize now in certain situations this is not possible for some parents. And now I realize having your child on a leash is better than that child getting hurt, kidnapped or killed. Thank You for opening my eyes to a different perspective.

  • Christine Powers

    I guess I’m not really in favor of the leash, but this is from a person who has no children of her own…but does have a dog. I wish I didn’t even have to leash the dog, but I understand it’s for his (and other’s) safety. When I was a child I was one of six kids. My mom had used to be able to “feel” us near her. She made us all hold on to a hank of her skirt (yes, it was the 50’s and 60’s) and if she didn’t feel all the little hands, she stopped everything to count heads — she counted, a lot! I am amazed at her ability but she also didn’t do things like bring us to restaurants when we were too little to mind… I really am in awe of how different the world is.

  • Melgoodmel

    I think used in moderation it is fine. I used one myself for my daughter who is also Autistic. She was a runner!!!! I felt her saftey was WAY more important then what other people thought of me. I didn’t use it all the time and frequently held her hand as she got older, but it took her a long time to learn the she needed to stay with me, and by my side. I also used it in Disney for my 4yr old.

  • ArmyMommmy

    I think that what a lot of parents fail to realize is that not all children are exactly like their own. So many parents believe that if the rest of us cannot achieve the grand leveling of parenting that they perceive they have attained, well then we’re quite simply failures. Before I had my sone, I swore I would never use a leash.

    I have 3 very well-behaved little girls. They readily grab my hand as we leave the van and head into the parking lot, they are always by my side, and they generally listen to what they’re asked to do. Then there is my son. He has a list of psychiatric diagnoses a mile long, the main one being on the autism spectrum. My parenting style was and is no different with him, he was simply very difficult to manage as a toddler. And don’t try to tell me I shouldn’t have had so many children either. He was our first. After losing him in a store once, I invested in a harness that looked like a Teddy Bear. I wasn’t neglecting him or not watching him, I grabbed an item and in a split second let go of his hand and he ran. In the maze of the isles I lost him in the blink of an eye. I lost all composure and rational thought for that moment as I ran looking for him and was struck by absolute fear. My son didn’t mind the harness a bit and it gave me piece of mind. I’m not neglectful and I am certainly not lazy or abusive. I am very concerned for the well being of my children, and for that particular child it meant taking an extra step to ensure his safety.

    Now for those parents who feel that makes me an abuser and even lazy, I would invite you to enter a year-long deployment to Iraq while alone on an Army base a million miles from home while you have 4 small children with just 1 of them being a “bolter.” You have no one to help watch them while you run out to the store because all of your friends are in exactly the same situation. You make do and you get things done and you don’t complain about it because overall you have a very happy little family. Now picture this child running away every chance he gets, just in that 2 seconds you let go of his hand to grab that can of soup off the shelf, and perhaps you’re just a little bit exhausted from life too, and you want to be sure your little one is safe as you do the job of Mom and Dad. Now picture someone has just told you that you’re lazy and abusive. Now, isn’t that nice? Thank you so much ladies and gentleman, that is just what I wanted to hear today.

  • ArmyMommy

    I wanted to add something after reading the last bit of the article once again.

    When my husband was deployed for his 2nd 15-month tour our youngest (our 4th) was about a year old. I had 2 in diapers with the youngest 3 being girls and the oldest a boy. Don’t get me wrong, I loved having so many children and there were more happy moments than hard ones, but it was a lot of hard work.

    I was a master at multi-tasking and working errands around when the kids were not going to be tired or hungry. One day, a little over half-way into my husband being away, I went into a local store for a grocery shopping trip. My son, who was once a harnassed bolter, was now a bit older and more trustworthy of independence. The trip took quite a bit longer than expected and there was a diaper that had to be changed right that moment and the others needed to “go” as well. I decided my son was old enough to go in the men’s room while I ran into the ladies room to change my youngest and let my older daughter go as well. THe problem was I had a cart FULL of groceries that I couldn’t leave outside the bathroom door. I thought it was plenty wide enough to push into the bathroom. As I was doing this, another lady was coming out and she was very angry that my cart was in her way. I said “excuse me” to get through. Instead of moving to the side so I could get through and out of her way, she started yelling at me that she had never seen someone push a cart into the bathroom. I couldn’t help it. I told her I didn’t know what else I should do and that I had 3 little girls who needed to go to the bathroom, no one with me, no one was going to be with me on any other day, and I couldn’t risk someone taking my groceries. She could have stood outside with my cart for just a moment, but instead she went off yelling at me about how I should learn to use birth control (our family was planned, not that that was her business). The water works started. It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I sat in that bathroom and sobbed because I was overwhelmed already, I was worried about my husband all the time, and that woman had just been so hateful to me for no reason at all. I was just trying to take care of my girls, not get in anyone’s way. My point is, much like the kind woman at the playground did a good deed that meant more than she probably realized, you might have no idea how much your harsh words might hurt another parent who is truly doing their very best in that moment.

  • Nan

    I to had my children on a leash when we traveled on the planes, SF Airport is a good place to loose your kids….Those horified on lookers that didn’t understand the leash was to protect the kids from getting lost or taken, also to help them get tired before boarding the plane so they would sleep and not cause a nightmare for other passengers. Now they make such nice ones, with back packs for the kids to put toys in to keep for later play time.

    Wouldn’t have lasted long without the help of a leash.

  • I agree with what has already been said, and here is my opinion. Whenever I see a child on a leash, he/she is usually the only child around and the parent is usually the father. Leashes are good for multiple kids, I do understand that, but really if your in a place like Wal-Mart and you only have one child with you, the leash isn’t nessicary. That is why they have carts and a place on the cart where you can put your child so he does not wander off. In your case, a leash is beneficial when you have a little one always runnign off and two others to look after. Also, it’s important to engrave to that child that the leash can be something fun, and not a form of torture (I saw a kid on a lesh once that had a monkey on his back-pack and the tail was the actual leash, I had to say awwww) So I guess my opinion is the leash is great for a family with a lot of kids to look after, but if you only have one with you, either carry them or tot them in your cart, because then it’s just giving someone the excuse to be lazy.

  • Marcy Belliveau

    I admit that I used to think horribly about parents using leashes for their children; this was however before I had a child who was an “explorer”. Now I completely get it and feel badly about the judgements that I jumped to. My daughter, who is now 4, would roam freely away from my husband and I without a care in the world. It made no difference to her how far away she got from us, she would just keep going and ignore any calls for her to come back. This is still something that we battle with on an ongoing basis. She’s to big for a leash now, but she still has that wondering spirit. We need to watch her like a hawk. It’s stressful now because she’s so little and you worry about her safety, but I hope she never loses her sense of adventure. As she gets older and becomes an independent adult; I hope she continues to “explore” the world around her and to find a place that makes her happy.

  • Kim

    I was definitely on the judgement train *before* I had my child. Now using a leash (a.k.a. the harness, the tether, etc.) is not even a choice. You see, I was blessed with a RUNNER, a nearly 2 year old that likes to FLEE. He’s too young to know the difference and too quick for his own good. And a special treat for his mom, he’s taking after his father who is 6’5″ and is big for his age. This means that he was able to FLIP a Graco stroller because he was trying to get his run on.

    The leash helps me keep him safe, and that’s the only important thing to me.

  • Sj

    This wonderfully written post and several of the comments remind me of two thoughts that I ran across in my reading over the years and have always kept in the front of my mind. The first is credited as a Native American saying:
    “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”

    and the other was an anecdote submitted by a mother w/3 young children, hands full, struggling to get off a plane. Most people squeezed past her, giving annoyed looks as they went, 1 or 2 offering to help, but she could only thank them and, embarrassed, decline. One man stopped and, instead of offering to help, simply said something like, “I’ll take the stroller and the bag, you take the children.” Helped her off, set things down and went on his way. The moral of this one being, don’t offer, just do something. When someone is struggling to handle a problem situation they usually won’t be able to tell you what they need.

    My personal experience related to the subject of lead or no lead for a young child: My husband and I lived for many years as an extended family with his brother and sister-in-law. The first child, my niece, and second & fourth children, my sons, were active, but responsive kids from the beginning. All of them happily stayed by our sides, held hands with one of the adults and/or each other or walked or ran a little ahead and always stopping to make visual contact at frequent intervals. Then there was the third child, my nephew. He walked early, began running immediately, didn’t respond to verbal instructions whether whispered, spoken or shouted, impulsively ran, jumped into and/or touched everything he could to investigate it’s properties — and always as quickly as possible. Even alone with one parent, he couldn’t be held on to. When we could, we took him places to play where he could run unfettered and still be safe and usually had at least 2 adults on an outing. However, there were times when we couldn’t avoid having one or two parents in a crowd situation with 4 children ages 5 and under. The choice being between keeping him home until he matured or finding a way to keep him safe, we put a harness and lead on him. We suffered the nasty looks and muttered comments of passers-by. This is where the Native American approach applies. Until and unless you’ve been there, don’t assume you could do it better. You will never know the back story of a passing stranger – unless you ask. This child grew up to be extremely intelligent, competent & empathetic and, as an adult was diagnosed with ADD, which went a long way toward explaining our challenges when he was young. He has no recollection of having used a harness and lead at 14-36 months and was clearly not damaged physically or emotionally by this. Think before you judge.

  • Begorman

    I am envious and wish I had thought of getting a leash for my daughter, the youngest of my three children. I adopted three children within three and half years so they were all very close in change and all young and needing my attention for the first several years. I still hyperventilate when I think about the time I lost my daughter in Marshall’s when I had the “nerve” to actually turn and respond to a question from someone in the store. I had learned to always keep my eyes on my duaghter because she would disappaer in a millisecond if my attention turned elsewhere.

    Well that day, a quick response was all it took for my daughter to run down four aisles, climb into a clothes rack and hang on it so I wouldn’t be able to see her feet. She had done this before so I knew to run around looking under the racks for her feet. When I couldn’t find her, I notified a clerk who locked down the store until three minutes later a woman looking through the racks found her. I can’t believe people weren’t more understanding and actually judged your decision to have a leash. I am a much more anxious person as a result of having to deal with my wandering daughter. She and I would have been better off if I had thought to put her on a leash. The main trouble began once she was a preschooler because carts don’t work once the kids get too big to sit in the seat–and they are really fast at that age too.

  • momagain

    No matter the issue, leash, pacifier, dirty face, whatever, we all need to judge a little less and have a little more compassion. No one ever knows what any one else is struggling with. Life is challenging. Let’s be kind and teach kindness to our children.

  • Amy Colette Feeley

    I disagree. I have two children, and both are explorers who wander away. One is autistic, so even though they ar 5 and 3, it’s more like having one 3 year old and a 4 year old. They are both active, fearless boys. I think leashes are terrible and disrespect the very essence of what it means to be a person (as opposed to a dog.) My suggestion is that people not have more children than they can control OR choose appropriate venues where everyone is confined and safe (like an indoor playplace or fenced in playground) OR bring extra supervision when they go somewhere where they cannot confine theior kids OR to choose a stroller OR to teach kids the “hold mom’s hand or we all go home” rule. Anything but a leash. I’d rather stay at home in our fenced yard and let the kids play on the cheap plastic slide and kiddie pool than deal with leashes. If I am going to a store where I cannot contain my kids in a carraige, I wait until someone is at home with the kids and go to the store alone.

  • Jessica

    I think we all underestimate the importance – and the necessity – of taking a step back and trying to put ourselves in others’ shoes. I don’t disagree with the use of harnesses for children. I think that if the parents have the children’s best interest in mind, and this is the way to solve an important problem, by all means use them.

    HOWEVER – having said that:

    I think the relief parents feel after using harnesses is much greater than the actual need for them. I know the feeling of having to CONSTANTLY supervise children. Exhausting doesn’t begin to define this process – but it has to be done. The harness makes it a lot easier, sure, but that feeling of worry is part of the process. It’s a sacrifice.