An uncomfortable conversation at the K-Mart check-out

This tale begins with the revealing of a deep, dark family secret. Last month, we became one of those families. Or more accurately, my wife is one of those mothers, and I am occasionally one of those fathers, but only with a deep sense of shame because of what I infer other parents think of me. I avoid being one of those fathers whenever possible.

Our 18-month-old son has a leash. Oh, sorry, I mean a tether. Or harness, as if that’s better.

I profiled child tethers four years ago, before they became popular. Back then, if you wanted one, you probably had to order from a website. I was skeptical at the time, leading to the shame I feel today. These days, child tethers go for $1 at garage sales.

The one thing my son doesn’t do in public is listen to his parents, and he loves to run, grab things and throw. It sounds normal for his age, but some of it seems related to the speech communication problems we’ve been having. Curbing repeat bad behavior is our biggest problem. So we carry him in a wrap or stroller whenever possible, but sometimes it’s just not convenient, especially now at 28 lbs.

Contrary to my prejudicial thinking, my son didn’t revolt when he was first leashed up. The harness has a plush teddy bear on its back with a tiny pocket. We began putting on the leash when dropping off, or picking up, our daughter at school. She wears a real backpack, and he wants to be just like her.

Photo of an Eddie Bauer Teddy Bear child harness and a marketing photo showing a child leashed up to his mom as people walk behind the child. Portions of the body parts of the adults, including the mother, are missing from the image.

It's an Eddie Bauer Teddy Bear 2-in-1 Child Harness, apparently discontinued in favor of a Winnie the Pooh version. Someone gets the award for worst Photoshop job on that marketing photo, too.

Some kindergarten, 1st and 2nd graders thought it was a backpack, and a cool one at that. One boy asked with great surprise whether my son was in kindergarten.

And better yet, when tethered up he is happy to be in the proximity of a parent without running wildly around. It’s a bizarre limitation he accepts.

Okay, so, about this K-mart conversation…

My wife made a quick trip to K-Mart on Sunday to pick up socks for my daughter… bringing both kids. I cautioned her that our son would pull products from the shelves, so she needed to use a wrap.

She went with the tether anyway, but resolved the issue by having him carry the socks through the store.

At the check-out, the female cashier leaned over the counter, looking at our son, and said, “Ohhh, I’ve got one of those! No one believes me, but I do.”

My wife thought the clerk was referring to our son, and she didn’t say anything intelligible: “Oh, mmm hmm.”

The clerk continued: “I get nervous out in public, so I have my husband put it on me and lead me around in crowds. It makes me feel safe. I panic when I’m around lots of people.”

My wife was essentially stunned, fumbling out, “Well, it’s good that it fits you.”

When she told me this story the first time, I thought my wife was saying the woman had an adult harness. But no, the clerk was, at most, a petite 110lbs.

I just hope telling this story doesn’t make Thingamababy a Mecca for adult harness lovers like it has for adult blanky lovers. (I jest. Everyone needs a home.)

Anyhow…. back to my son’s harness. After K-Mart, my wife stopped by a grocery store. My son carried an orange through the store. At some point he dropped it, the orange rolled along the floor, then he picked it up and gave it a firm full-mouth chomp.

And that there is our son, totally different from his sister in almost every way.


20 Responses to “An uncomfortable conversation at the K-Mart check-out”

  1. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    We use a leash in stores as well. Our son does strain at the leash, sometimes. (not always, sometimes he is happy to walk alongside mommy). Now that he’s a few months older, I’ve found, because he got used to walking on the leash, he can walk off of it and stay near mommy sometimes. But we still have the leash handy for when he stops behaving and needs the extra reminder.

    My sister says the longer she’s been a mommy, the less she criticizes other parents for their parenting choices.

    October 19th, 2009 at 6:02 am

  2. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    PS and my dad talks about being tethered at this age when he was growing up. So… they may not have been commercialized. But they’ve been around

    October 19th, 2009 at 6:07 am

  3. Andrew says:

    wait, so the adult woman is kept on a leash by her husband? There is no denying the weirdness of that.

    October 19th, 2009 at 7:34 am

  4. susan says:

    I leash my toddler too. He just doesn’t have the impulse control to keep himself from doing inherently dangerous things like running into the street. I have had people say awful things to me but my son loves his little red leash. He knows that he gets a good deal of freedom with it that is not available to him in the stroller or the Ergo. Also the leash keeps him from having to hold my hand for long periods of time which can’t be comfortable for him. I mean how long can you hold your hand comfortable over your head?

    October 19th, 2009 at 9:22 am

  5. Kimberly says:

    We bought a teddy bear tether for my son when he was around 18 months… he did flail and flip when he had it on him, so we never made it out of our house with it…. but now that I have a 2 week old and 22 month old I am more open to trying it again. Maybe making it more fun for him now that he understands more.

    October 19th, 2009 at 10:12 am

  6. adrienne says:

    When Ranger was a toddler learning about traffic and staying nearby, we used a harness backpack.

    Jim’s mom used a harness with him and his brother. They were living in Germany, and they were not uncommon there.

    I like that the harness/leash/lead (unlike being strapped in a stroller) burns off some kid energy. It also makes the parent and child work together.

    We wrote about our monkey harness and why we like it:

    I think we only used the leash for a few months. At 4, Ranger is a fabulous walker for distance (he can easily do a hilly mile and a half without complaint at 4) and he’s responsible and aware around traffic. He still likes to wear the backpack at the zoo even though we haven’t used it with the leash for well over a year.

    October 19th, 2009 at 11:28 am

  7. Nadia says:

    For shame. Don’t you know you are meant to let your son run perilously close to a major road, then scream swear words at him and hit him.

    October 19th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

  8. skeeter says:

    My brother and I had harnesses growing up in the UK, and so did my cousins. I never got lost, ran into the road, got kidnapped etc. When I see parents walking through shops with their young (and I mean young) children trailing metres behind them, it makes me angry and scared. If I was that way inclined, I could pick up that kid and be gone before the parent even turned around. I am glad of the animal backpacks, they don’t get as many comments as a plain old harness, but would I rather be looked at as a bad parent or lose a child? Easy choice…

    October 19th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

  9. Tracy says:

    We used a backpack harness too, and I found that it usually gave our daughter more freedom than she would have had otherwise. We normally used it for walking along the river or visiting the lake in the park to feed the ducks. It added an extra bit of safety near the water and allowed her to feed the ducks or toss pebbles in the water without my constant warnings to be careful.

    October 19th, 2009 at 2:41 pm

  10. Tiffany says:

    We used a harness for our son, now 3.5, from pretty much the moment he could walk. He loved it. Always wanted his harness- why? Because with the harness, he could walk around us and explore, find things and pick them up, run circles around us, etc. Without it, he had to hold our hand (seriously, do you want to hold someone’s hand for an hour?), or be in the stroller, with much more limited exploration ability. What’s funny is, the snarkiest, meanest comments we ever got were from very young people with no children. Most parents, and especially grandparents, would stop us when out and about (at the zoo, for example) and talk about how they used one, or ask where we bought ours. Now, it helps that our son loved his and was quite happy with it on. If he screamed the whole time the harness was on our pulled and obviously was unhappy, it would not have been such a good solution. We just ignored the mean people, or, if a reply was obviously expected, asked whether they preferred that he get lost or hit by a car. That pretty much shut them up!

    October 19th, 2009 at 3:46 pm

  11. Emily says:

    Before we had kids I thought the leashes were horrible. With our first, my Grandma gave us a red leash. We never used it. I couldn’t understand why parents needed a leash or harness… wouldn’t it just be better to keep control of your child? Our daughter never tried to run from us, and always stayed very close, when she was old enough to walk. Then we had our second child, and I suddenly realized how wonderful those leashes really are! She was always trying to run off, so with the leash I was able to take both girls for a walk without worrying about my youngest jumping into the street. I still held her hand, but if she was to wrench away from me I had a backup. I probably would have never left the house without my husband, if it wasn’t for that leash! Now when I hear people say how horrible it is for parents to use leashes on their kids, I just smile, and figure they’ve never had kids. :-) Oh, and my daughter LOVED that little red leash! She knew it meant we were going outside for a walk.

    October 19th, 2009 at 3:46 pm

  12. Christy says:

    We had the puppy version of the tether shown. And man we used the heck out of that thing.

    I wasn’t so concerned about her in stores or malls. The airport was another story. I found our leash to be invaluable in the airport. Instead of having to drag a stroller through the terminal, I was able to allow her to walk. She got some exercise and i got some peace and quiet on the plane!

    October 19th, 2009 at 5:13 pm

  13. Sandy W. says:

    When our oldest son was a toddler we bought a harness/leash right before we were going to do some Christmas traveling. We were nervous about losing him in the crowds at the airport in Seattle.

    Our harness did not have a backpack. It was just a simple harness.

    We put it on him and he didn’t resist. But then, while standing in the security line waiting he suddenly got down on all fours and starting barking loudly and refused to stop. Everyone was staring. We frantically took him out of the harness and that was the end of that. Oy. Wish I had known about the teddy bear backpack ones back then.

    Looking back, I realize that he may have made the connection with the similarities between his harness and our dogs leash. Both were red in color and about the same thickness. He probably thought it was a fun game. In retrospect, it’s funny. At the time it was horribly embarrassing. Parenting is a fun ride!

    October 20th, 2009 at 8:44 am

  14. Amy says:

    But I still want to know: If I start to leash my kid, will my top half disappear, as advertised in the ad above? I’m all for weight loss, but I’d like to at least keep my head!

    October 20th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

  15. Pippin says:

    Oh my. Funny I ran across this today. The other day I participated in an on-line debate about harnesses.

    The “bad mother” argument was thrown around liberally, along with the “lazy parent”, and “leashes are for pets” debates.

    I don’t have a harness for my 2 year old, YET. She’ll probably get one for Christmas. This past summer we were at a concert in the park with tons of people. My child wanted to run, which was fine, we found a field a little way from the stage, where there weren’t as many people. But. she ran right up into a frisbee game with some college students. One guy nearly body checked her. I have no doubt that had I not thrown myself in between them, she would have ended up in the hospital.

    I live in a small town, so I’m sure I’ll get the Looks and Comments.

    At that same concert, there was a little boy on a tether. I could see people talking about him. I actually spoke to the adults who he was harnessed to — a set of grandparents — who told me this was the only way they could spend time with their grandson in a crowded place, and feel safe, as they can’t run and fling themselves in between burly frisbee playing college guys… I brought this up in that debate I participated in, and some folks actually had the nerve to say the little boy and his grandparents should have just stayed home, since they obviously “couldn’t control him”. Sad.

    October 22nd, 2009 at 2:58 pm

  16. Lori says:

    I was one of the harshest criticizers of leashes until we went to Disneyland and watched a mother of a 3-year-old boy run around frantically when she realized little Timmy wasn’t next to her. The terrified look on her face is permanently emblazoned in my brain. She found the kid, thank God.

    Riley’s getting one as soon as she can toddle.

    October 27th, 2009 at 12:33 am

  17. JenRae says:

    i used to hate those things… but after having my first daughter who walked at 9 months, and would not sit still in the cart after that… i changed my mind. I never did actually buy one, but I came very very close. The backpack one is very cute!

    October 27th, 2009 at 4:35 pm

  18. Penguinmommy says:

    Ummmm I don’t want to criticize or light the debate fires, but I’d like to point out that my mom raised and home schooled the four of us (at most 16 months apart) without using leashes… and we didn’t get hit by cars, kidnapped, or abducted by aliens. I would also like to note that, had she tried to put all four of us on leashes, it would have become a tangled mess. We did have rules like if we got to far in the grocery we had to keep one hand on the cart.

    I’m all for parents finding what works and I have worked with many families who have children with special needs such as autism where this is literally a life-saver. To me, I think it’s a stop-gap measure. I would be sad for a child who only got to go out on a leash. I guess I also feel sad for kids who don’t get to just “go play outside” for hours at a time either.

    I guess for me the dilemma is one of trusting the big bad evil world a little and, probably, more importantly, working with our children to be trustworthy. For me at least, when it comes to leashes, there is a big difference between the distracted two year old finding freedom in a hard to predict situation and a four or five year old who just decides listening sucks.

    I really like the idea of a leash where the child holds the other end, it just feels safer to me. You clip one end to your belt loop, they hold the other end, it solves the “arm above the head” issue, shows some trust, and allows arm freedom for the adult (yes it requires you be conscious of the child but if you’ve ever walked a dog it’s pretty easy to feel tension or not).

    My final note: I have twice now seen a child slammed onto their back, smashing their head into the ground when someone either tripped or walked into the harness line. So, if you’re going the strapped in route I recommend some padding.

    October 27th, 2009 at 9:52 pm

  19. Elizabeth says:

    All I can say is that I wish leashes worked for us. We had one and trying to walk with my boys in a leash is like trying to walk with my Great Dane when she sees a squirrel.

    November 22nd, 2009 at 12:30 pm

  20. Gwyn says:

    One thing to keep in mind is, different children like and/or will accept different solutions. What seems “sad” to an adult can be completely hunky-dory to the child. Some children want to hold your hand, some don’t. Some want to be on their own two feet, some don’t. Some like their teddy-bear backpack/harness, some don’t. Period.

    We used a teddy-bear style leash in the airport when our daughter was 2. Our concern was not that she would get lost or stolen, but she was totally unpredictable when she was walking around, and would dart in front of people or weave like a drunkard. I was mostly trying to keep other people from falling over or onto her. She was really a hazard to others, who were just trying to get to their plane. Like the other poster said, it gave her some exercise during stopovers, while allowing the other travelers to walk in peace.

    We also used one in Amersterdam, which is a great city for walking but was pretty crowded and had narrow streets and sidewalks. We didn’t have to yank on her arm to keep her from falling into the street — it was actually a more comfortable and humane solution than holding her hand!

    She quickly got in the habit of staying reasonably close to us, and walking in a more predictable way. In that regard, the leash is a gentle way to teach them how to navigate crowded conditions.

    March 1st, 2010 at 4:17 pm