Inclusion and wellbeing

Do we show enough respect for children’s boundaries?

Respecting children’s space shapes how they understand consent.
September 22, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

This story looks at how we first give children an idea of boundaries, consent and personal space. Especially with young children, we don't always give them the same treatment we'd give to other grown-ups.

• If we can show children what healthy boundaries look like when they're young, those lessons will support them in respecting personal space and consent later in life.

• By the end of this article, you'll learn practical, everyday tips on how you can help children learn these ideas. Plus, down at the bottom you'll find five children's books to explore these concepts together.

When it comes to personal space, we sometimes make children play by different rules.

As a child, you put up with fussy hands wiping your mouth during dinner, when you could have done that yourself. You’ll get scooped up for a cuddle, even if you just wanted a little alone time. Grown-ups might pressure you to give a kiss to that great aunt whose perfume smells like petunias and brandy.

These things come from a place of love, of course. But for something as important as personal space, it’s worth reflecting on how our love and respect comes across through our actions. After all, these little actions shape children's perception of themselves, and how they learn to respect each other’s space, boundaries and bodies. And if we can give children a healthy, responsible grasp of these ideas in early childhood, it could make a huge difference in how they respect boundaries and consent in adult life.

So in this article, we'll reflect on how we introduce children to concepts like consent and personal space in early education. We’ll talk about what you can do as an educator to help children build up that awareness of their own boundaries, and how they can recognize and respect that with others.

And to build up better boundaries, we’d best begin with babies.

Baby laying on his bed

Understanding personal space starts in infancy

Our earliest experiences of how people treat us follow us our whole lives.

Carla Goble, an early educator and consultant with a focus on helping children develop their sense of self, explains that the memories we form as babies are based on sensory input, like how we’re handled, or how people speak to us. Those early experiences start to shape our sense of self, and what we expect of others.

“Just the way we handle babies affects how they think they deserve to be treated,” Carla says. “That forms the foundations for how we expect other people to treat our bodies, which we build on the rest of our lives.”

Before we start talking to older children about boundaries and consent later in life, Carla believes we’ve got to start by showing babies that we’re aware they’ve got their own personal space, and a choice about how others treat and handle them. And yes, this means asking before you pick up that wiggly, squishy six-month-old, even if they can only answer in babble.

“A baby’s not going to verbally say ‘yes’, but asking before we handle them gives them awareness that they have personal space and boundaries, and some say in how close other people get to them,” Carla says. 

These early interactions, even with nonverbal infants, are what wire our brains to expect others to respect our space and choices.

Mother changing diapers

How you can model good boundaries during care routines

Giving children a stronger awareness of their own boundaries and personal space doesn’t mean you need to re-tool your entire practice. A lot of the most important lessons are things you can model for children through your everyday interactions.

The best opportunities to make children more aware of their personal space, Carla says, are during your daily care routines. These are often one-on-one moments, which make it easier to model consent for children, and what it looks like to be aware of someone else’s space and choices. Plus, because you repeat these routines often, it’s a great way to make sure these lessons stick with children.

Here are three daily ways you can help make children more aware of their boundaries:

  • Feeding and mealtimes: Giving children food offers lots of options to give them more choices, and to be gentle in our approach. Carla models the dialogue she might say during a feeding routine: “I’m going to give you a taste of something new, and it’s called pudding! And I’ll give you a little bitty taste, and you can decide if you like it,” she says.
  • Diapering: As we’ve explored before, diaper changes are key moments to show children how we treat their bodies respectfully. Carla recommends inviting children to help in the process (“Can you hand me a fresh diaper?”), giving them choices (“Would you like the diaper with dinosaurs, or with stars?”), and narrating what you do as you do it.
  • Touch and holding: Before picking up infants or children, ask “Is it alright if I pick you up for a cuddle”? This gives children the choice to let you into their personal space — and for infants, you can look for facial expressions or raised arms that suggest they’re open for cuddles.

Girl reading a book with a baby

Helping children learn boundaries during playtime

With toddlers and young children, you can also model consent by giving children the words and tools to bring these ideas into their own lives.

One key opportunity for that is when you’re helping children resolve conflicts with one another. Often enough, these arguments involve an overstepped boundary, or one child not respecting another’s space or choices. In that case, it’s important to ask questions that make children aware of these boundaries.

Carla recommends questions that nudge children to reflect on others’ emotions, and that look for better solutions to a problem. This is what helps little ones understand why it’s so important to be aware of boundaries in the first place. Here are some examples she offers:

  • What happened there? 
  • What did she do?
  • What did he feel?
  • What else could she do?  
  • How should she solve this problem?

You can also model these ideas through direct play with children. If you're kneeling on the floor playing dinosaurs, you could announce to children that your plastic Brontosaurus doesn’t want to be touched, to see how children respond. You don’t need to expect they’ve got a perfect grasp of these concepts right away — it’s enough to get children thinking about these ideas on a regular basis.

Exploring these ideas through play acts as a ‘practice run’ for children. It helps them understand the idea that all of us — whether we’re an adult, a three-year-old, or a plastic dinosaur — have a say in how others treat us, and have to be aware of how we’re treating others.

The big ideas

Children’s books to discuss boundaries and consent

On top of modelling consent and boundaries for children, another good way to explore these ideas is through storybooks. Reading stories can help make these lessons stick with children, as they give children an example they can apply to their own lives. 

Here are five great books you might want to add to your shelf:

  1. Some Cats Just Want to be Looked At by Nicole Savoy: This board book explains that some cats aren’t interested in petting, even if they look soft and cuddly. But we can still find ways to show those cats we love them, even if it isn’t through cuddling.
  2. Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung: This board book is about Ladybug, who loves hugging her friends. When she goes on a trip, she wants to hug her friends goodbye — but she learns that not everyone wants hugs all the time, and that’s okay.
  3. Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Nielson: Kai the mer-boy is also a hugger, but one day his hug (or squish, as he calls it) makes a puffer fish swell up in shock. Kai learns other ways to show his affection, because “Every fish likes their own kind of squish.”
  4. Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller: This storybook is about Aria, a young Black girl who’s always fending off people trying to touch her hair. After running way from curious mermaids and martians, she’s had enough — and puts down boundaries for herself and her space.
  5. Rissy No Kissies by Katey Howes: Rissy is a lovebird, but kisses make her uncomfortable. Her friends and family wonder if she’s feeling bad, or being rude — but she shows them that we can choose to show love, and be close to others, in lots of different ways.
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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