Picture this scene: A shopping mall food court, high noon. Next to the fake plants and decorative fountain, an adult ambles past holding a leash. At the end of the leash is a five-year-old, strapped into a harness that’s designed to look like a smiling plush monkey.
The child does not look anywhere near as happy as the monkey.
When you think “child leash,” odds are something like this scene comes to mind.
Formally known as the child safety harness, the device has long been the focus of a debate about caregiving, parenting and child development.
At your child care center, you’ve probably heard both sides of the argument. Leash supporters stress the need for safety, praising its ability to stop children from dashing off into crowds or toward a busy intersection. Their opponents often counter with accusations of lazy parenting, defending the child’s right to individuality and freedom of movement.
But beneath this back-and-forth, the leash opens up an important conversation about child development. How do we help children feel safe and supported, while also giving them the freedom to explore, and develop their own independence? What do we communicate to a child by using this physical tether? Can it be used in a productive, healthy way?
Long story short, there’s more to the leash than you might think.
As early childhood educators, you already know about balancing safety and risk in a child care center. But how can you communicate that to a parent who shows up one morning with their child on a leash?
To get the conversation started, we decided to reach out to some expert voices.
Why the child leash?
Neal Horen is the Director of the Early Childhood Division at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. According to Neal, there is very little academic research specifically examining the child leash.
But if you zoom out a bit, the leash fits into a broader academic discussion about how caregivers can respond to challenging behavior from children.
“It’s about adults trying to help children be safe, which is a good thing. But if I put you on a safety harness, what does that mean? That means that the only way I know how to deal with your behavior, if it’s running or not following directions, is to put you on a leash,” Neal says. “I think there are lots of other ways to address the problem.”
The leash anchors the child to a supervising adult, intended to prevent the nightmare scenario of an excited youngster bolting off into a massive crowd. Parenting blogs often praise the leash for helping them control their “runners,” meaning young children with a tendency to run off and explore in open spaces. Though early childhood educators and parents might interpret this behavior as reckless, it is often a natural stage of development.
Young children are exploring their developing motor skills, and many have a great deal of energy. Wanting to run about is quite normal.
But there are lots of other explanations for a child running off. They could be curious about something they noticed in their surroundings, or thinking they’re initiating a run-and-chase game, or excited, overstimulated or stressed. Placing a child on a leash for this behavior can feel to them like an undeserved punishment.
Regardless of the reason, having freedom of movement is important for allowing children to explore their emotions and impulses. Clipping them into a leash, Neal believes, denies both the child and the caregiver a developmental learning opportunity.
“If the danger you’re addressing is that the child runs off and puts themselves in some kind of unsafe situation, the skill you want to build is how they handle their emotions and impulsivity,” Neal says. “How do you get them to learn the skill if they never have the opportunity to do something impulsive, and then learn how to self-correct?”
Risky play and independence
For the developing child, experiencing risk can be beneficial. Climbing a tree, riding a bike downhill, or wandering off in the grocery store all carry different elements of risk — and with that, a rewarding thrill and a learning experience. Risky play involves an element of challenge and adventure, requiring children to overcome fears, confront the unfamiliar, and build coping skills.
Exploration is a common form of risky play, and research suggests that children have a natural urge to do it. But this doesn’t mean you can just turn your children loose onto the playground while you stay in for a coffee.
Safe foundations for exploration
Children need to have a sense of security in order to feel comfortable exploring the unfamiliar. For teachers and early childhood educators, this means being physically present while a child is exploring, but also having conversations with children that help them talk about and evaluate risk.
According to Paige Safyer, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, safety and exploration are really two sides of the same coin.
“Children need to know that when they’re exploring, they have a safe base to go back to, which is often their primary caregiver or teacher. You don’t see children explore if they’re anxious or scared,” Paige says. “They need to be shown what’s safe and what’s not, and talk through these explanations with an adult. A leash can’t take the place of these conversations.”
Collaborating on safety
Clear communication is key to helping children think for themselves. In the case of a child leash, it’s important that adults take the time to explain why they’re using the device. If not, the wrong message might come across — that the world is a big scary place, and it’s only safe to experience on a leash. This could foster needless anxiety, and make it more difficult for the child to set off exploring when the opportunity arises.
If you’re taking your classroom for an outing and feel the need to place a child on a leash, you should explain why you’re doing this with them. Talking through your reasoning for using the leash not only makes it more acceptable for the child, but also helps them build a broader understanding of how and when they need to be aware of dangerous environments.
When it comes to children’s safety, Paige encourages us to think of children as collaborators in the process.
“When they’re young, children are able to understand a lot more than they can express, so it’s really important for adults to take the time to explain how things work. Just as you would explain to a child why you hold their hand as you cross a busy street, I think the same information should be given if the child is put on a leash.”
Building new skills
While the leash can help to curb challenging behavior, it can also make it difficult to figure out and address what’s causing that behavior in the first place.
Neal Horen offers three tips on how to help your child build critical behavioral skills:
- Consider causes. Take a moment to reflect on why your child might tend to run off. Are they overstimulated? Do they struggle with sensory issues? Could they be stressed or frightened by something in their environment? Are they simply excited, and burning off extra energy? Knowing the why behind the behavior is the first step to development.
- Plan ahead. Talk with children in a safe, calm environment to explore the risks involved in behavior such as running off. Walk them through what could happen, what things might be like, what they might need to do, how they (and you) might feel if they were to get lost. These conversations develop children’s abilities to consider and react to unfamiliar situations.
- React in the moment. When you’re out and about with your child, pause before you enter a potentially stressful or risky environment — a busy parking lot, big crowds, a large department store. Help them prepare for potential stress factors, and prompt them to run through what they might need to be cautious of in these environments.
One leash, hold the judgement
One of the most frequent points of contention about the child leash is judgment between parents and caregivers.
Leash users often describe feeling judged — whether directly, or silently — by other adults. As an early childhood educator, it’s possible you’ve been on either side of this judgment. But the leash can have valid applications in certain circumstances.
Each child develops at their own pace and in their own way. It’s impossible, from a passing glance in a shopping mall or on the sidewalk, to get a full and fair understanding of the relationship between any adult and child. Perhaps the child is dealing with sensory issues, and feels uncomfortable with the physical contact of holding hands. Or maybe the adult faces mobility issues, and the leash is the best way to stay close with the child while out in public.
As Neal explains, no passing stranger’s judgement on the leash is ever based on the full picture.
“I’ve never judged anyone using a child safety harness. I’m not going to tell you not to use it. Rather, I want you to think about if it’s the only thing you can do,” Neal says. “You should weigh the costs and benefits, you should figure out if your child is still learning the developmental skills you want them to learn, and understand the purpose behind what they’re doing.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. What’s most important is to recognize the leash as part of this balance between risk and safety, and how important that is for children. If you use a child leash, or if you’re discussing it with the parents at your center, take a moment to think about the why behind your choice — and if you’re making that choice for your own sake, or for the child.
It might just be a matter of convenience for you. But for the child, it shapes how they see and explore their world.
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