Asking better questions about parenting and child leashes

Asking better questions about parenting and child leashes

There’s nothing like becoming a parent to turn someone into a militant, judgmental psychopath. A common complaint is that our culture has become increasingly polarized. I often wonder if this is true, or if this statement is a result of nostalgia. As parenting goes, the polarization is here now, and easy to spot, starting with natural birth versus hospital birth and breastmilk versus formula. Once toddlerhood comes about, there’s child leashes versus YOU MONSTER WHY WOULD YOU LEASH A CHILD LIKE SOME KIND OF ANIMAL?*

That’s where I am now.

I started researching this topic when my toddler was about a month into walking, and her running off into the road became a tangible possibility. Was a leash something we’d need or want, or was this now considered a barbaric practice better left in the 1980s?

What I found at the start of this research process didn’t help me at all. There haven’t been a lot of studies done on child leashes. In lieu of science, the internet served up a chunky stew of thinking errors, logical fallacies, and ad hominem attacks.

Child's backpack with rosy-cheeked smile.
Hi! I’m a leash backpack, and I’m here to teach your kids about free will.

In other words, the discussion of child leashes borders on useless. In a state of reactionary horror, the anti side won’t entertain practical considerations, instead screaming about ethical questions that they don’t bother to ask. The pro side has seemingly been more willing to look the pragmatic side, but the ethical questions are the elephant knocking politely at the front door, still having not made it into the room.

In the would-be Venn diagram of these two sides, both lack questions that should be asked, and the overlap between sides is crescent-moon thin.

That’s where I come in. I have either no sides, or many. I’m an amorphous cloud with no direction.

I’m pro rationality. I’m pro critical thinking. I’m pro questioning.

Forget sides. If you’re figuring things out, here are some useful questions to ask about child leashes and other parenting choices:

  • Is there any scientific research to support either position?
  • In terms of physical effects?
  • In terms of psychological effects?
  • How old is the research?
  • Who funded it?
  • Is it applicable to all types of leashes, or only a particular kind?

The answer to the big question, unfortunately, is “not very much.”

  • How does being leashed affect the child?
  • In the long term?
  • In the short term?
  • Physically?
  • Psychologically?
  • Does this encourage the traits I want to instill in my child?
  • Does leashing encourage or curtail a willingness to explore?
  • Does it encourage or curtail bodily autonomy?
  • And which of those things do you want?

The antis say no, duh, your kid is on a leash. The pros say yes, because you’re now enabled to take your kid into the environment and let them walk.

  • Is the leash a response to realistic dangers or imagined ones?
  • Is my view on leashes, as it is now, consistent with other views that I hold?
  • Would it make more sense to avoid the situation in question, at least until the child is older?
  • Are there some situations where leashing is more or less acceptable?
  • Are there some situations in which it’s worth trading off long-term effects for the sake or safety?

Long term psychological damage is meaningless if a child is truly harmed. But if you can avoid the situation altogether, wouldn’t that be preferable?

  • Is it the most pragmatic solution?
  • Do leashes even work?
  • If so, are they effective, particularly versus other options?
  • Have you fixated on the leash as a solution when there is a different root problem that needs to be fixed?

Some anti-leash folks say that kids need to be disciplined, not leashed. That statement itself is a huge can of worms, but does point to a potential root problem that might need to be addressed.

Also, I can say from experience that leashes don’t always work. I was leashed as a child, and I still remember squirming out of my harness at the fabric store and hiding in colorful bolts of patterned cotton.

No, I have no idea how it affected me psychologically. I did enjoy the fabric though.

In his latest season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell did a series on “thinking like a Jesuit” and using Jesuit reasoning to solve moral dilemmas by looking at the particulars of a situation. In this case, one might ask, “Is a child leash closer to a set of handcuffs, which might hold a prisoner, or a safety strap on a carseat?” One might also ask if it’s like having a dog on a leash, and if so, is having a dog on a leash positive or negative.

It’s a lot of thought-work for one seemingly minor decision. But habit shapes who we are, and if a leash is something that would potentially be used often, it’s worth considering possible outcomes. The gap between intention and actuality is where our personalities form.

When I first drafted this several months ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to conclude by choosing a side. I would leave it open, even if writing this and thinking through all my questions had swayed me to a particular side.

This hasn’t been an issue that I’ve spent endless months grappling with, or lost any sleep over. When I first drafted this, my toddler was still at the stage of strollers and wrap carriers. In the interim, as this sat on my hard drive and I posted other things, my child went from a hesitant walker to a kid who yells, “RUNNING RUNNING RUNNING” at the top of her lungs and climbs anything. We passed into the stage at which, if we were going to use leashes, we would be using them.

You know the saying that actions speak louder than words?

By my actions, I’m on the side of no leashes.

But my circumstances allow this. I live on a rural area; I don’t need to contend with busy city streets. I also have only one child.

I taught her not to run into the road. Considering that she just turned two, I’m happy with how well she does. However, I have no way of knowing if that’s down to successful parenting, or if it’s because she’s an easier kid than I was.

The research that hasn’t been done yet is what would’ve swayed me to one side or another. As it is, while my actions have put me on the no-leash side, philosophically and ethically, I’m still neutral.

Neutral, and excessively pro-questioning.

*People like to ignore that they too are animals. I’ve taught my two-year-old to answer the question “What type of animal are you?” The answer is “hooman.”

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