It’s Saturday afternoon, the park is crowded you have just settled into a park bench when you look around for your child and find them just out of reach completely naked. Oops! It’s definitely normal for children to test all kinds of boundaries, but when it comes to their own bodies it can be difficult to know how to address the do’s and don’ts.
Part of responsible parenting can often be having conversations with your children that you may find difficult but are important. Learning body boundaries is one of those. Teaching your child proper boundaries regarding their body isn’t just one conversation it is a lifelong discussion that is revisited regularly through word and deed.
Learning boundaries starts early.
Bodily autonomy (or the right to choose what we do with our own bodies) is taught early on by example. Teach your children consent by modeling it. When possible give them an opportunity to assert their own boundaries. Let them pick out their clothes for the day, or what dish they want from a restaurant. Be a good example by modeling respect for their belongings, asking if they mind if you pick up their stuff. Be gentle with their toys and respect your child if they ask you not to play with a special toy. Sharing is nice, but everyone has certain boundaries that are important to them.
Ask before you touch or hug them, let them know it’s okay to say “no” to hugs and never force them to hug someone they don’t want to. Teach them to respect other people’s bodies by being gentle instead of harsh, by not forcing kisses or hugs, and by treating playmates with respect. Role play with them ways to deal with situations where they are uncomfortable and how to state their boundaries clearly. For example, teaching them to say “I’d rather shake your hand.” instead of getting a hug if that’s what makes them feel more comfortable.
Use the proper names for all their body parts, and teach them which areas of their body are private. Encourage them to tell you if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable or touches them in a way that isn’t acceptable. Explain that the doctor or a babysitter may need to help them get dressed or check them for problems, but checks are quick and you should always be there or be told about it later.
Privacy for you and your child.
It won’t be too long before your child starts to request or at least show signs of wanting privacy when they are going to the bathroom or changing clothes. Respect this privacy as often as is safe, and let them know that you understand their desire for it.
Show them the way by requesting your own privacy too, let them learn how to deal with feelings of wanting to follow you into the bathroom but not being able to. Be nurturing and talk it out with them. Let them know that sometimes people will want privacy and they should respect that.
This is also a good time to discuss that curiosity about your own body is normal and fine, but it’s definitely a bedroom activity when it comes to exploring. Remember this is developmentally normal and your child is just curious, don’t make a big deal out of it, but encourage privacy.
Manners and respecting others.
Fairly early on the opportunity to discuss body boundaries presents itself. At some point, your toddler will figure out how to take off their clothes and will do this regularly without any consideration of where is appropriate. In the store, at the park, in the middle of a dinner party, your toddler will try to get naked. It can be frustrating, but it’s important to address it in a non-shaming way. Talk about privacy and when and where it’s okay to be naked, and when it’s more appropriate to wear clothes.
Part of body boundaries that can intersect with manners is not making fun of people for things about their body that they cannot control like bodily functions or body types. Learning to accept and love your body for what it is can help children be more confident in establishing and sticking to their own boundaries.
Secrets vs Surprises which is okay, which is not.
Explain to your child the difference between a secret and a surprise. Secrets are never kept from parents and anyone asking your child to keep a secret shouldn’t be asking! Let your child know you are a safe place to come should that ever happen.
Surprises are okay! A surprise is only kept for a short amount of time and has a definite end date. You don’t have to tell mom what dad is getting her for her birthday because she will find out on her birthday. Surprises that aren’t happy things (like gifts) or that don’t have a specified end date (like a party or Christmas) are not good surprises and need to be discussed with a trusted adult.
Keep it positive, keep it consistent.
Learning to respect boundaries for ourselves and others is a continuing conversation and as children grow they will need more details including information about your family’s values when it comes to dating and other subjects. Keep up the hard work, and find times to bring up examples to have discussions, especially in non-confrontational ways like discussing situations that come up in books or movies. Hashing out what they might feel, do, and need help within these situations early can help if they ever come up.
It is important to keep discussions light and positive, you don’t want to set up the subject as taboo or shameful. Even when you do have to remind your child that being naked at the grocery store isn’t ideal or that explorations in the bath are fine but during church service aren’t, remember to do so in a tone that suggests you’re imparting important but helpful information and not angry or cross.