When my daughter started taking her first steps a few months ago, everything in our apartment posed a new threat. She tripped on uneven tiles, the corners of our couch, her toys, and sometimes her own socks. Now that she has better control of her newfound mobility, I catch her reaching for the oven door handle, leaning over the bathtub’s edge, and once even hanging off the back of the toilet. Her moments of exploration fill my days with angst, and when I think ahead to future walks on busy Hoboken streets with a toddler who has no fear, I can’t help but consider the possibility of the much-judged safety harness.
From First Street to 14th Street, it’s not uncommon to see a small child running ahead of a parent, or a car running a stop sign. But what is unusual to see on the streets of Hoboken is a child on a leash. “It’s something people shy away from because they think it’s absurd to put a leash on a kid,” says Selina Aquino, store manager at Bambi Baby on Washington Street. And the stigma, she says, comes from a correlation of leashes to pets.
“Those who come in shopping for it are always afraid to say ‘leash,’” says Aquino. “So I tell them it’s not a leash, it’s actually a safety harness.” On average, one timid parent a day walks in the store to ask about it, but only one parent a week will actually buy it, and usually that’s because something “really bad” has happened. “It takes that initial meltdown that they are like, ‘You know, I am not even going to think twice again,’” Aquino says.
The safety harnesses the store carries look like little stuffed-animal backpacks. Similar gear on the market is disguised as matching wristbands for parent and child. But no matter the design, the stigma stands.
Several parents in town say they’ve thought about using a safety harness for their child. Mother of two Rebecca Malinsky admits that the negative connotation made her hesitate to use one for her son, even after she had to stop him from running into the street. “It was really scary,” she says, “and it was one of those times when you could see why a parent would use one.” Malinsky says she was eventually able to teach her son boundaries without resorting to a safety harness. “But I don’t think for every family, that’s an option,” she says.
Between her newborn son who never seemed to like his stroller and her curious two-year-old daughter who wanted to navigate the aisles of CVS on her own, Hoboken mom Amanda Fowler was stressed. “My nerves were just absolutely fried,” she says. She often worried that her oldest would approach a stranger or an aggressive dog. Then she discovered a monkey backpack safety harness and started using it for her daughter at the mall and airport. Unlike some parents who mentioned they’d gotten looks or comments when using a safety harness in public, Fowler said she hasn’t noticed anything different in people’s attitudes. “People could be looking at me,” she says, “but I don’t really care.”
Before she had her daughter, Barbara Geary said she was against safety harnesses for kids: “I always saw people in the mall and thought, ‘How horrifying.’” Then her child learned to walk, and Geary realized the benefits of using one. “She can run a little bit, and I don’t have to worry about her being snatched up,” Geary says.
Hoboken clinical psychologist Dr. Jodi B. Streich, Ph.D., says there is nothing wrong with a parent using a safety harness to protect a child. “It is perfectly acceptable as long as it is being used properly,” she says. The harness could actually serve as a kind of security blanket. “If it gives mom peace of mind and if mom is calm, her child is going to feel that,” Streich says. However, parents shouldn’t overuse a safety harness; they should allow the child some freedom to explore on his or her own. “You also want your child to be able to adapt to the world without being tied to something,” says Streich. But the safety harness has the potential for becoming the norm. “It might be something like a car seat to some people,” Streich says.
Common or uncommon, stigma or no stigma, Amanda Fowler says parents should focus on what’s important: their child’s safety. “You can’t be embarrassed when you become a parent,” she says. “You just have to buckle up for the ride.”—07030