Child Care Ethics And Leashes For Toddlers: CNN and Its Viewers Flunk An Ethics Alarm Test

Kids on leashes

It is constantly amazing to me that journalists so seldom identify obvious and critical ethics issues in the topics and events they cover. The rest is mixed emotions: this absence of ethics awareness is a serious culture-wide problem; then again, were this not so, I’d probably be in a different, and less stimulating profession.

Today I sat down to lunch as CNN engaged in a breathless discussion of whether using leashes on toddlers and even older children was a good idea, as it is either a growing trend among parents, or CNN was having a slow news day. The phone lines were open, and many viewers weighed in, with the primary camps expressing the following positions:

1. “If it makes children safer, then there is no reason not to do it. Safety is everything. Kids have been killed running into the street.  A leash will prevent that.”

2. “This shows the decline of child-rearing skills in the United States. If you can’t control your kid better than this, you are the problem.”

If the question of whether it was fair, kind, respectful or right to treat  your child like a cocker spaniel occurred to anybody in this discussion (I know the CNN staff never considered it), I saw and heard no evidence of this. Yet that is the central question, and it is an interesting one to consider. The fact that matters of human dignity, responsibility, respect, fairness, autonomy, kindness, proportion and prudence need to be balanced to answer the question at hand never came into the discussion, and those debating the issue demonstrated neither awareness of the competing ethical values, nor the ability to know how to employ them.

This also showed the disturbing cultural tendency to make avoidance of risk the primary consideration in all balancing exercises, particular those involving children. Is it any wonder that college students are now demanding “trigger warnings” in literature, lest their delicate sensibilities be damaged by a surprise plot turn?

My view is this: it’s unethical. I’ll accept arguments that the “Ick Factor” may be in play, but I believe that treating a child in exactly the same manner as a dog on a walk crosses a critical line that, once crossed, allows other an more sinister indignities to be visited upon powerless children in the name of “safety.” Why not have the kids in restraints at home, so they can’t hurt themselves? Roll them around in public in mobile cages? I’m sure iot might save some lives and prevent some injuries to do this. Surely all kids should wear helmets inside and out, at all times. And knee pads. And elbow pads. Plastic face masks would also be a good idea. Muzzles too–kids can bite.

I have no expertise on the topic, so I won’t speculate what it does to a child’s self-esteem and self-perception to be treated like this, but I know I would have deeply resented it, and if I saw photos that proved I had appeared in public on a leash, my respect for my own parents would have dropped several notches. (As it happened, their opinion on the subject was exactly the same as mine.)

The definitive verdict on this ethical controversy (even if CNN and its viewers couldn’t recognize it was such), was delivered over a decade ago, on the Simpsons. The episode involved Homer’s brilliant but unlucky brother, who invented a “baby translator,’ which allowed parents to understand baby talk. (All the translations are rendered in the voice of Homer’s bother, played by Danny DeVito) One of the children who tests the device is the child on the leash pictured above. The Baby Translator reveals his opinion of the practice, and it is an ethical bullseye. He says:

“This leash demeans us both.”



 [Further commentary, in part based on comments here, can be found in the next post.]

105 thoughts on “Child Care Ethics And Leashes For Toddlers: CNN and Its Viewers Flunk An Ethics Alarm Test

  1. On my fourth birthday, I told my mother I was now too grown-up to need reins. After some misgivings, she agreed, and I didn’t betray her trust.

    Before then, it gave me both a sense of security, and enabled me to do things and go places I never would have tried without them. For me, it was a safety-harness. I was a very inquisitive child.

    I’d completely forgotten that until now.

    I should mention strollers didn’t exist back then, not in England in 1961.

    • I should mention strollers didn’t exist back then, not in England in 1961.
      Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall a British film with a pram rolling down the street. perhaps with a bomb inside.
      Sound familiar?
      I guess prams are only for infants.

  2. I will say it one more time: Use of a leash on a child is not a one-practice-fits-all (or one-practice-unfit-for-all).
    No ideology there.
    No slippery slope.
    Simple utilitarianism.

  3. I’m not wading through the 80 previous replies… I’ll just provide my own account.

    I’ve got a child who will turn 4 in September and she’s been walking and talking since she was 1. She’s always had her own mind and will go anywhere, talk to anyone.

    From my experience, there’s a 3-6 month window when they are starting out where they will follow their curiosity and not even realize they’ve wandered off. No sense of attachment or who they are with. As much as I’d like to say you can beat that sense into them, you can’t and you’ll just do more harm to their development.

    While I do believe an often used leash that becomes ingrained in a daily routine would have adverse psychological and developmental effects as well, I can see a limited use as a tool in unfamiliar, higher risk situations.

    For our part, we obtained a dog back-pack and the tail was a leash. The purpose of the item was for traversing Denver International Airport and the connecting airports we were dragging our diaper bags, toys, backpacks, etc etc etc. That’s it. It’s a high risk & nerve racking situation to be in when you are going through a large crowded airport and then unfamiliar airports. My daughter at that time absolutely hated to be held or in a stroller or to hold hands. (Holding hands presented it’s own struggle, given the height differences.)

    Looking back, it was a very small time frame when it was a useful tool and we used it maybe 3-5 times and never in a routine situation when we should, as responsible parents, be able to properly manage our child. If we didn’t have the time to manage our child in a store or a mall, the child didn’t come or we made sure we weren’t over burdened by bags, etc. so that we could provide the proper oversight.

    In summary: revulsion to the sight of the child leash is the Ick Factor, but that Ick Factor can spot unethical parenting if the child is older (2.5+ years) or it’s being used routinely and has become a crutch.

    • Too much overthinking..and analysis. Not about a LEASH but a HARNESS which is very different. When you’re the parent of a running 9 month old BABY there IS NO REASONING with him. I had a harness when I was a toddler in UK. As did both my children.. active early runners now well adjusted adults.. They’re still alive and healthy because I had them in harnesses. AND who the F cares? Whose business is it. Those who seem to think this is an issue don’t seem to be parents.
      There isn’t any discussion here about reliance on a leash… just stupid.

      • Funny, generations of parents in all nations managed to raise toddlers safely without putting them on leashes via harnesses. (My dog had a harness, and it was attached to a leash. What a lame argument THAT is.) Your comment is a welter of rationalizations, and nothing but. It’s a lazy, dehumanizing way to treat children, human beings, and non-dogs. So apparently you haven’t absorbed any ethics on the site—you’re just you’re just winging it. That’s not how I prefer to have commenters approach these questions.

        You clearly don’t grasp the concept that society has an interest in developing ethical attitudes and cultures. A community where the streets are alive with children on leashes is likely to have related problems, like child abuse. That’s why we discuss these kind of questions. “Who cares?” is not an ethical argument.

  4. Oh, you know … I had a little girl, and then I had a little boy. Thank heavens for that birth order, because the little girl was always calmer, more focused, and a better listener than her brother. I didn’t use a leash, but I used HER. “Quick, go catch your brother.” “Uh oh, can you see him?” My son was always, always on the move, and sometimes I just had to do something other than hold his squirmy little hand. I never resorted to a leash myself, and I do find it appalling – but if the choice is life (busy street) over dignity, life wins.

    That having been said, part of parenthood is learning to control your child. Part of growing up is learning to listen. Both skills are compromised by reliance on a leash.

    The solution: have a little girl first. It’s more expensive than a leash, but it was very effective.

      • Okay, if you’re going to say that child-leashing is something ideological, then how come the free market advocates here who reject leashing also seem to reject any and all potential educational value of leashing, and freedom of parents to choose such? It seems the literal, “extended arm” of a prudently used leash – that is, to include gentle but persistent and reliable constraining force, in opposition to the force asserted by the child who verifiably lacks understanding of how to act in self-interest – would work wonders for imparting instruction, at least vaguely and “more safely,” about the fortuitously beneficial presence of that “Invisible Hand.”

        Unless you insist that a free market is inherently, intolerably cruel and demeaning to all who must pursue satisfaction of their self-interests in subjection to such a market’s constraints…

        • Seriously? Why don’t free market enthusiasts respect the choices of the adult? Because the adult isn’t the only person involved.

          Liberals hate babies. that’s all there is to it. Oh… A liberal might love A baby. But in general, liberals hate babies until they’re old enough to vote. They don’t see them as human, or having agency. Abortions? That’s OK, they aren’t real people yet. Leashes, they’re OK, they don’t know better. Baby shaming online, that’s ok, they aren’t hurt by it yet? Male genital mutilation… for the best! We don’t like cleaning down there, and the ladies like it.

          • Strangely enough, Humble< I have actually heard a college professor suggest that killing a kid up to age two is ok because until then the kid should not be considered human. He was a liberal. Can't give you a link to it or prove it but it was on CNN I think.

            • You know… I believe during the abortion debates a while back, some of the lefties rationalized that the lack of “personhood” removed protections of life of the innocent unborn. I always found that nebulous term very quirky. What exactly is “personhood”? The presence of a personality? Ability to speak? What? Ability to express self motivated action? Any of those items would place abortable age well after birth… Up to age five or six in the case of needing a concrete personality.

              Some claim “viability”… Another amusingly nebulous term. When they are “viable” or can “survive” outside the womb is when they are no longer a discardable human being… Last I checked most babies can’t survive out of the womb but are still desperately attached to their care providers.

              Another claim of an ethical standard for personhood was the perception of pain. Don’t abort after a certain stage, when pain can be perceived they’d say. Hm. Why is the sense if pain that which matters? Other senses seem part and parcel to humanity… Such as loneliness which doesn’t develop until about 6 months after birth. Or fear… That gives a year and a half after birth standard. There are other senses that are decidedly human in their manifestation that could work.

              I l

              • Tex, I’ve heard all of those arguments, but I cannot get past my personal belief that life begins at conception. Actually, life CONTINUES at conception, since the sperm and the egg were never “not alive”.

  5. People who judge negatively towards people using leashes usually don’t have children or don’t have more than one child or are men and have never been pregnant while another child was young enough to need the exercise of walking but not old enough to obey yet. They’re usually just ignorant enough to get unnecessarily worked up about things that really aren’t there business anyway.

      • Believe it or not, I’m about halfway done with the taxonomic breakdown of the Rationalization / Diversion list…

        Lauren’s comment I think, though brief, encapsulated a few in there…

        • Thank goodness–can’t wait. I almost renumbered the thing, but it caused more problems than it solved (some numbers are familiar by use.)

          Was it bad of me to leave in all of Lauren’s typos? They seemed just right, somehow…

    • Our 19 month old is a runner.

      First glance away and she could 30 feet away.

      I have considered this topic on many occasions since we discovered she loves exploring at top speed.

      We do not and will not use a leash.

      We aren’t lazy parents.

      • Wait–has Bon Jovi been to your house? How did you end up in 2014?

        And speaking of that Bon Jovi post, it has morphed into one of the ones that is in the top 10 most viewed posts every day, with no end in sight. This despite the fact that over half the commenters say it’s beyond trivial and I’m an idiot for posting it. It also is one of the most shared EA posts. This never happens with the more substantive posts that I labor for hours over. Literally never.

        There’s a message in that, but I’m afraid to think about what it is.

  6. Get off your high horse. So proud you clearly are of your esoteric argument. Yiu could argue the ethics of just about any child rearing practice into the ground (“Why put a baby in a crib, which demeans both child and adult, such as it is a sort if cage?”) Not a real quote, but I could well imagine this smug author tapping it out.

    • The blog is Ethics Alarms—you must have wandered here by mistake from “Meh. Who Cares?” Ethics is about trying to be on the highest horse possible, and treating toddlers like spaniels doesn’t make it.

      • “Ethics is about trying to be on the highest horse possible”

        One of those wonderful comments that invalidate a post by agreeing with it.

          • Another response: that was my quick reply to an recurring irritating argument. If you don’t believe in ethical standards and think anyone can make up their own, then don’t read ethics blogs. By “high horse” I meant “high standards.” And you knew it. Yes, i realize the term can be used in a pejorative fashion, and if it wasn’t an off-hand rely, I might have said it better.

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