I used child leashes on two of my three kids at various points during their highly mobile toddlerhood. Our kiddie leash resembled a cute, fuzzy, bear backpack. The leash handle zipped inside. I could whip it out and hook it up whenever I felt the situation called for it. Key words here, people: whenever I felt the situation called for it.
I’m pro-child leash. Actually, I’m pro-“whatever the parent thinks is the right decision to keep her child safe unless it’s illegal or harmful.” See also pro-“people minding their own bees.”
We leashed sparingly, in dense crowds or situations where grownup hands were occupied. I’m absolutely convinced my youngest son is still in our family because we used the fuzzy bear leash in the security line at the Atlanta airport in 2012. I was juggling my boarding pass, passport and a packed-to-the-gills diaper bag that kept slipping off my arm, in addition to trying to manage my wiggly 2-year-old.
Airports are large, fast-moving places where you can lose a child in a flash. The end of the leash was wound around my wrist twice. I could feel my son straining against his tether and I knew if I let go, he’d blast off toward whatever shiny thing piqued his interest. He was low to the ground and could have zipped through people’s legs below my line of sight and been gone in a nanosecond.
We like to judge parents who use child leashes, don’t we? We like to call them cruel, lazy. We also like to judge parents who can’t control their kids in public and we love to judge parents who lose their kids in public. The internet is always there to tell parents we’re “doing it wrong.”
Let me tell you about the time I wanted to use my child leash and didn’t. Read my story and then tell me if you still judge me. Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t care.
It was 1996 and my daughter was 4. I’m not sure how long child leashes had been around, but they were causing ripples in the pre-internet parenting communities. Same as now, the word on the street was that parents who use leashes on kids are mean or lazy. If you teach your children to mind, they won’t wander away from you. If you’re an attentive parent, that is.
I was at an amusement park that day in 1996. The leash was tucked in my backpack. I wrestled with whether I should use it. The park was crowded and my daughter bounced up and down with excitement. She tugged on my hand, begging to go in this direction, in that direction. There were costumed cartoon characters, rides and Oh look, Mommy, ICE CREAM!
I decided not to use the leash. I was with a large group of friends and family, maybe 20 people total. My daughter was the only small child and there were plenty of adults to help keep an eye on her. I always worried about her in public places because she was a friendly child and a wanderer. And she was fast.
I remember the time I heard “lost child at security” while shopping at Target. I looked down to make sure my child was there next to me. She wasn't.
“Mommy, you left me,” she accused me when I frantically showed up to collect her.
“You left me,” I corrected her. I'd focused on some bargain shampoo and took my eyes off of her for a second, and she made her move.
The amusement park was different, I told myself. It wasn’t as if it were just the two of us. I had lots of help. No need to clip on the leash and suffer dirty looks from leash haters. Besides, 4 was getting to be too old. She’d be fine.
“Make sure you always hold hands with a grownup while we’re here.” I crouched at her eye level and spoke sternly.
I don’t remember how long we’d been there when I glanced down to reassure myself that my daughter was by my side. I’d let go of her hand and I wanted to put eyes on her. She wasn’t there. Willing myself not to panic, I scanned my group to see if she was holding hands with a family member. No.
My heart started to race and the frantic “Where’s Laura?” flew from my mouth repeatedly as I spun in circles, looking high and low for a little blonde head in the crowds.
I’m sure my panic was contagious. I’m sure my family joined me in the search. I don’t remember anything except a sinking feeling and despair. Then I caught sight of a familiar blonde head about a football field’s length away from me. A grandmotherly woman who thankfully wasn’t a child snatcher or a pervert had my daughter by the hand, walking toward me.
Maybe my daughter pointed to this crazy-eyed, blubbering mess and said, “That’s my mommy.” Maybe I thanked the woman. I don’t remember much beyond crying and yelling at my daughter who told me she’d just “wanted to see the boats,” the little remote-controlled boats. You feed them coins and watch them putter around the man-made lake. She saw the boats and went for it. Because she could. Because there was no one stopping her.
We were lucky that day.
If harm had come to my child, there would be so much judgment. If I’d walked my child around on a leash at an amusement park, there would still be judgment. If this happened today, the judgment would be magnified because of the internet. Pictures of me, labeled “bad mom,” might go viral.
I have never forgotten that day; and when my younger, just-as-inquisitive son came along, I never hesitated to use that leash when I thought it was needed. I’m a fan of child leashes — and now you know why.
I’m also a fan of giving other parents the benefit of the doubt and a little grace. There’s not enough of that going around.
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