Using Kid Leashes in the Parks: Godsend or Disaster?

by Lisa Perkis, staff writer

Welcome to another installment of MousePlanet’s Parenting panel. This week’s question concerns a piece of parenting equipment that we all see used at the Parks:

How do you feel about using kid harnesses or leashes at the Parks?

Laura King is mom to five boys who are now ages 9, 7, 7, 5, and 1. She recently traded in her job as a dance teacher to enter the world of PTO, Cub Scout den leader, team mom and school volunteer. She and her family have had Disneyland passes for the past 15 years and try to make it to Walt Disney World every three to four years.

Laura writes:

With five boys at home, I’ve tried almost every piece of kid equipment at least once. The child leash was one thing that really failed us. We decided to try one when my oldest was 2 and the twins were about 6 months old.  We had a huge tandem triple stroller where the infant seats had to be seat No. 1 and seat No. 3. which meant my 2 year old was stuck in the center seat.  He was not terribly fond of that because he couldn’t see and he was surrounded by babies. So we decided to try the leash.  Since he was a wanderer and could slip out of your hands in two seconds flat. It sounded like a good idea—that was until we tried it out.

He liked the leash at first. He liked his freedom. I liked that it was harder for him to slip away. And then he realized that he could only wander so far. At that point he started pulling as hard as he could to get away. Then he sat on the ground and refused to stand up again. He tripped me. He tripped my husband. He tripped himself. It was a nightmare. So back into the stroller he went. We tried it again a few weeks later with very similar results. So the leash went into the trashcan.

For us it’s been easier to teach them to hold our hand or hold the side of the stroller, and they’ve been known many times to hold onto my pocket if my hands are full and we need to get through a busy crowd. The 2-year-old stage is still the toughest for us because they just aren’t quite ready to listen and hold on.  But we’ve made it through four 2-year-olds…just one more to go.  So we remain fans of the stroller until they are 3.  And when you have four big brothers poking and bumping each other, the stroller is a pretty nice and safe place to be. 

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 11, 8, and 5. They’ve been visiting Disneyland since they were each just weeks old. Adrienne has been a day camp counselor and teacher. Now she’s a mom and a Cub Scout leader and has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder for 14 years.  

Adrienne writes:

I have three wonderful children. I have parented all three of them, for the most part, the same. And yet, they are three different personalities. I found some parenting strategies and techniques that work with all three of them and others that work or one or two but not all. That said, as I had more children, I changed, as well. When I only had one toddler, our life was very different than it was when my youngest was the same age. I had different expectations of myself, my children and my support system. For many reasons, I used a leash with my eldest son and I would do it again! Frankly, I don't see what is the big deal. 

My Matthew has never been able to sit still. He's one of those children. While he moves, he takes in the world around him. Even his teachers say that when they call on him, he always knows the answer because, despite all that movement or the appearance of distraction, he pays attention. As a toddler, there was no containing his inquisitiveness. He wanted to scope out the world, including the park we visited almost weekly: Disneyland.

The leash let Matthew have the independence he needed while Doc and I kept him near enough to us. With the leash on Matthew, he could walk up to a fence and grab the posts with his hands while he peeked through it. We kept our eyes on him, he experienced freedom. We let go reasonably, he knew we where we were. He was not a fan of his leash, but he liked his stroller or holding our hands even less. 

I combined leashes to make the perfect leash for Matthew. The wrist leash did not work because he could remove it too easily and it jerked too much on his wrist. The harness style had a webbed leash without enough give. I compromised by attaching the wrist style leash to the back of his overalls, which he often wore, or by switching the elasticized strap from the wrist-style leash and attaching it to the harness. 

My younger two boys never did use a leash. Spencer naturally stayed close to our sides. By the time we had Colin, I have to confess: We found ourselves either less patient or less observant than we had been with Matthew. In retrospect, I think some of our visits may have been easier if we had only had a leash and allowed him a little more independence rather than keeping him strapped and cranky in his stroller or in our arms. 

As with many parenting issues: The problem is often not the tool but the person using the tool. No matter what a parent uses, there will be user error. Some parents drive strollers without problems, some fail to pay attention. The same can be said with leashes. Some parents become complacent and may, at times, fail to pay attention to the child on the other end of the leash, while others use leashes without incidents. No one is perfect but, in my opinion, leashes are a great tool for inquisitive toddlers.

Mary Kraemer is a travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations. She loves to travel with her husband and four children and is an avid Disney fan who visits Disneyland several times a year—and Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line as often as possible. Mary writes:

Imagine this scenario. You’re walking in Fantasyland, and you see a mother struggling with her screaming toddler. The sound raises your eyebrows, despite the mother’s reasonably calm reassurances to the child, “Now, honey, it’s very crowded here and you have to hold Mommy’s hand because we have to stay together.”  That logic is met with more screeching, the pair are standing still, actually taking up more space in a crowded place than they would if they were walking to Dumbo, and as the mother repeats herself for about the 30th time, you can see her exasperation with the equally upset child. 

Yeah, another day at the

Happiest Place
on Earth. 

Or, imagine this scenario. A mother is walking with her twins to Dumbo, and each child wears a little chest harness that is attached to a "leash"  that the mother has wrapped around her wrist. The children are within reasonable reach of the mother, have independence, and won’t get lost in a crowd. Nobody’s crying or fussing or refusing to hold hands. 

The same day at the

Happiest Place
on Earth, several feet away from the other family’s meltdown. 

Which is better? Who is having a better time at Disneyland? 

In many cases, the second situation raises eyebrows and draws comments about taking kids to the parks on leashes like a dog (although, honestly, I have never seen a parent—myself included—request a child to sit and stay while tethered). On the other hand, the screaming child and frustrated mother also raise eyebrows and draw comments too, scraping like sandpaper across the parent’s already thin patience. 

Think about it. If you go to Disneyland with a loved one of any age, do you hold their hand the entire time you are at the park? I’ll bet most people have to honestly answer, “No.” Taking small children to Disneyland requires a fair amount of preparation to spend a day comfortably (diapers, extra clothes, sunscreen, wipes, etc.) and you want to have the best time possible (why else would you go there?). Toddlers like to exert their independence, and constant hand-holding is a pretty sure bet to cause a dispute sooner or later. You want to keep them safe; they want to go see the friendly cast member with the Mickey balloons, even if you are heading somewhere else. It’s a dilemma and I don’t even want to bring up the issue of ergonomics, where you’re leaning over to hold a much shorter person’s little hand. 

And all that goes completely out the window when you have two or more little people involved. 

There was absolutely no debate on this issue for my family. We had harnesses with "leashes" attached on the back for my three kids. My twins are 14 months older than my youngest daughter, and we loved going to Disneyland when they were toddlers.  When you’ve got three little people to watch and keep safe, holding hands and trying to go anyplace is just not an option. The harnesses were the only choice we felt was reasonable for our family. The kids had a sense of independence, they were within reach and nobody would go missing suddenly, and everybody was happy.  

And isn’t that what a day at the

Happiest Place
on Earth is about?

I have to admit, I was expecting a little more hate for the children’s harnesses and leashes when I sent out this parenting question to our panelists.  My kids are well, well beyond the leash years (though I may consider breaking them out when my youngest hits 16), but I never considered using them when they were toddlers. My rule for toddlers at the parks always was: "If you are out of the stroller, you need to be holding mom or dad’s hand.  If you don’t feel like holding mom or dad’s hand, then it’s back in the stroller for you, my dear."

Fast-moving crowds at the parks can sweep a toddler away in a wink, or, even more commonly, trample them to the ground. I figured, the closer the child was to a grown-up, the more protection we could offer them. There is plenty of time for freedom and running wild when one is away from the maddening crowds; i.e. at home, at a park, at grandma’s house. 

Maybe my kids have a more compliant temperament than other children, but even when the girls were 2 and 3 years old, they understood when it was time to stick with mom or dad, no questions asked. Plus, there was always so much to see and do at the Parks— I don’t remember them ever getting bored from the vantage point of the stroller or walking next to mom or being carried in daddy’s arms. But of course, every family has different needs and I’m glad to see the leash system has worked for some of our Parenting Panel parents.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting on the Parks section of our MousePad discussion board, and share your best tips for what you bring when you're at the Disney theme parks (link), or send your suggestions via e-mail (link). Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!

Next time: Traveling in the Off-Season: Do you pull your kids out of school?