One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is how to respect other people’s boundaries. It’s central to everyday social interaction, as well as to trickier topics they’ll need to understand when they get older such as consent. So it’s never too early to introduce the concept, and indeed most of us find it relatively easy to let our kids know when they’re overstepping the mark, or breaking social rules.
However, the most effective way to get the message across is to practise what we preach. In other words, we need to respect our children’s boundaries in order to show how it’s done. And then draw attention to it so they understand what is going on.
When your child is tiny, you naturally make all the decisions. If your baby needs their nappy changed, they don’t get a say in the matter. You decide, you take them to wherever you do your nappy changing routine, you undress them, you clean them… of course you do. There’s no other way. At a few months old, if they don’t want you to put their clothes on them and they get all wriggly, you gently but firmly dress them regardless.
Yet by the time your child leaves home, you wouldn’t dream of touching them without their permission (even if that’s unspoken), or telling them what clothes to wear, or who to be friends with. So, you’ve got to get from A to B. From making all the decisions for them, to respecting their independence. And they need to learn what boundaries they have a right to set.
The sooner you start, the better. It may not be practical when they’re infants, but it won’t be long before you start to allow them some autonomy, and by primary age there should be clear areas where they have a right to set their own boundaries, and to expect you to accept them.
Here’s an example – suppose your five-year-old hates being tickled and asks you not to do it. In that case you should stop and let them know you’re doing so because they asked. And here’s another instance that many parents overstep because they don’t view it as a boundary they should respect: suppose your child hates being made to give Granddad a kiss, maybe because they hate the feel of his beard or find it scary. Although, does it matter what their reason is? Is it acceptable to make someone kiss anyone they don’t want to?
Your child has a right to this boundary, and the best approach is to help them find a different way to greet Granddad that they are comfortable with.Pretty much all children reach an age when they no longer feel comfortable being naked in front of their parent. They might be seven or eight, or they might be much older. The boundary may be different with one parent than the other. They may be fine wandering round the house in their underwear, or they might only be happy fully clothed. This is a boundary they have a right to set at whatever age they choose, and we need to let them know we respect it. Privacy is important, and also covers your child’s right to be alone when they feel the need.
When your child lets you know they have a boundary, you can tell them in words that you accept it. The most important thing is to go along with it, but even better is to say, for example, ‘OK, fair enough, you’re entitled to say ‘no’ to that’. That way you’re making sure they understand the principle. Indeed, as they get towards the end of primary school age it’s good to have conversations about what boundaries mean.
The boundaries we have a right to set are very personal – they’re about our bodies, our privacy, and our feelings. They’re a bit like an invisible shield around us that other people aren’t allowed past without our permission. We’re entitled to say ‘no’ to being touched, tickled, or made to hug people we don’t want to. We have a right to personal privacy as far as is possible. And we can also refuse to accept people deliberately speaking to us in ways intended to hurt or demean. That doesn’t mean people can’t ever get cross, but we all need to express that in ways that don’t cross the line. One of the best ways to explore this with kids is when good examples come up in books or on TV. With younger children we can ask simple questions: ‘How do you think that made little bear feel?’ Over time you can get your child to think a bit more deeply.
As your child grows older, they will need to learn that respect is a two-way street. It’s not just about what they have a right to expect from others, although this is important if we want them to grow up able to be assertive and clear about their needs. They also need to recognise that if they want respect, they must give it too. So you’ll need to let them know clearly when they’re overstepping someone else’s boundary. And if necessary, spell it out for them: ‘Please knock before you come into the bathroom when I’m in there. If that’s the rule for me then it’s only fair that it’s the rule for you too.’
This article is an extract from ‘The Rules of Parenting’ by Richard Templar, author of the global best-selling “The Rules of… ” series.
The Rules of Parenting is available now in all good bookstores and is published by Pearson.