Dr Richard C. Woolfson
The typical toddler can be a nightmare to manage outside his home. His natural curiosity and spirit of adventure leads him to explore his new environment without any thought as to the potential hazards around him.
You have to keep your eyes on him at all times. That’s why a harness or leash seems so attractive.
At least with this device – a small harness attached to your toddler’s body, with a lead that is a few metres long – you can allow him to wander a short distance, knowing that he can’t get any further from you.
However, using a leash with your toddler has potential drawbacks as well, particularly when it comes to the issue of your child’s independence.
Your toddler has two competing developmental needs.
First, he needs you to keep him safe and healthy, as well as to form a strong bond with him because that helps him thrive emotionally. This dependence on you is part of his healthy psychological growth during the early years.
Second, he needs you to encourage his independence so he learns how to cope without you by his side every second of the day. He needs to have experience of handling life on his own in order to learn self-reliance.
So, if you use a leash on your toddler, you satisfy the first need for him to be safe and close to you, but not the second need for him to gain independence.
Setting firm limits on how far he can move before being physically restrained means he doesn’t have to think for himself. He quickly learns that you’ll make decisions about his independence for him.
You may also find that on the odd occasion when he isn’t on a leash, he uses this opportunity to make a break for freedom!
Another problem that can occur is that pulling on the leash can become a fascinating game for your two-year-old.
He may think it is great fun to pull as hard as he can against you – that will probably be the most interesting part of your outing, as far as he is concerned. You could end up arguing with him about the way he plays with the leash.
Given the different pros and cons of using this device, you may find the following suggestions helpful:
Don’t reach for the leash every time you make an outdoor trip with your toddler, or he’ll have no opportunity to learn how to regulate his own behaviour.
Consider the context of the outing before putting the harness on him – you will probably want to use it in a crowded mall on a busy weekend afternoon, but you may be able to manage without it at a park on a quiet weekday morning.
Allow your toddler to have some outdoor activities where he is free to run around without you restraining him.
For instance, take him to the park on a quiet day and encourage him to stay beside you even though he is unrestrained. He may run off initially, but he will soon start to settle down.
A good mix of leashed and unleashed activities teaches him independence while keeping him safe.