Teaching Healthy Body Boundaries- Going Beyond “No Means No”

Right now, most upper grade elementary students, middle schoolers, and high schoolers will at some point in each school year attend some sort of presentation in their schools on Bullying and Anti-bullying measures. It is a good thing. But teaching kids to respect other people’s bodies, and how to advocate for themselves begins much earlier than early teens. Toddlers and preschoolers can, and should be taught healthy body boundaries simply and early.

We often teach small children not to hit and bite, but we do not as often teach children that any physical contact, with their peers or with caregivers, should be consensual and respectful. We often teach the phrase “no means no” when it comes to unwanted touching, and when it comes to personal private space, we teach that bathing suit areas are off limits. However, what we need to be teaching children, even the youngest, is that “Yes Means Yes, and that all touching should involve first getting some type of consent.

How many times have we as adults witnessed playground interaction between children where one child would like to hug or kiss a peer, but the peer clearly does not want to but is not saying no? Lots of kids clam up and freeze when someone is in their personal space because they want the other child to go away but, (having been told not to push or hit), feel powerless to stop them, or simply don’t have the words? This is why “no means no” isn’t enough. When we teach no means no, we are teaching that silence is the same as yes, which it is not. Children need to know that only expressly wanted contact is appropriate. This applies to children who like to give lots of affection to peers and caregivers; they need to know that even nice touches require consent, and it also applies to children who do not care for lots of hugs and touching from friends or adults. Kids need to know that if they don’t say yes or reciprocate the contact, that the contact should stop.

The very best way to illustrate this important life skill, and one they will need their whole lives, is twofold: First, we must respect the physical boundaries of the children in our care, and second, we need to lead by example when it comes to the way we touch them and they touch us. Don’t worry, this is easier than it sounds.

When it comes to demonstrating bodily autonomy to children, they first need to know that they do not have to hug or kiss anyone, including parents, family, or caregivers, if they do not want to. Then, in our day to day interactions with children, we must develop a habit of asking for their consent. “Do you want to brush your teeth or do you want me to brush them?” “Will you wipe your own bottom or do you want me to wipe your bottom for you?” “Would you like a hug and kiss goodnight?” This is the simplest way to respect them and teach them about boundaries, but also a very hard habit to develop if we are not used to it. However, if we do this for them, they will imitate us and in turn show more respect for other people’s bodies.

Second, when we experience our children crossing the body boundaries of others, including ourselves, we need point out to them the moments where they need to be asking before touching. It’s easy for siblings and pets to do this, they are usually very good at letting toddlers and preschoolers know they don’t want to be touched. When we see a child pull the cat’s tail or poke the dog, we can say “The pet isn’t saying yes, look at them, can you see that they are not happy?” Likewise the baby sibling will cry when an older sibling is pestering them, and that is an obvious cue that though the baby can’t say no, the baby is not happy and the touching needs to stop. Most important and difficult to enforce sometimes, we need to remind children that our own bodies belong to us, so when children attempt to climb over us and grab our bodies, we let them know that they need to ask first, and they need to stop if it isn’t OK.

These skills, practiced by and with the people closest to the child, will translate to the Pre School, Daycare, or Nursery School over time. Beyond that, our children will learn that their bodies are their own, which will protect them throughout their school careers and into adulthood.

Prime Time Early Learning Centers in Middletown and Farmingdale New York, and in Paramus New Jersey, embrace a philosophy of respect for all people, especially children. Our staff is specially trained to teach children appreciation and respect for their own bodies, and to respect other people’s boundaries and bodies. This awareness, training and education extends to our full time child care programs, after school programs, holiday and summer camp.