Teaching Young Children About Bodily Autonomy and Asserting Limits

Every parent has had the experience of their child saying that a peer or a sibling or even the parent themselves has touched their body in a way they did not like. Sometimes it’s a push or a grab, other times children complain about not wanting hugs or kisses. Inevitably, most parents have also had to set their child down and tell that child that they must not touch their friends without asking. How can children be so strongly aware of their own body autonomy and yet act as if the idea of it doesn’t apply to anyone but themselves?

That’s a mystery for certain. Parents are well aware that when children join preschool and daycare settings for the first time, they can anticipate there will be conflicts over personal space because it happens to everyone. Every parent knows the “we don’t hit people” speech, and every parent knows the “tell them not to hurt you, and then tell your teacher” speech too. So how then with an almost universal “no hitting” policy amongst parents and caregivers, do we still stumble on this over and over again.

There are theories on why children are aware of their own bodily autonomy and rights to it while still disregarding the same in others, however, there is a trend in preschool behavior that when viewed closely can be spotted. If a child firmly asserts a “No! Don’t touch me!” with a peer, most children will stop. However, watching three, four, and five-year-old children play, one notices that there is often a scenario where one child is clearly not having fun as he is tugged on and roughhoused, yet the child either says nothing, or perhaps giggles or perhaps just runs away. Some children are not comfortable asserting themselves, and their silence is as good as consent to a toddler or preschooler.

Adults who foster character in the young children in their care need to stop saying “no means no” because so often, a child may feel that they cannot say no, they may remain silent or run away but not say at all they don’t like to be touched or they don’t want to participate. Most children will see this and rationalize that their friend did not say no, so it must be okay. We need to begin teaching the concept that “yes means yes”.

When a group of kids is all tugging and yanking at the hands and clothes of a peer, trying to pull him towards something, and the peer being yanked is just scowling and physically resisting, but not saying “no”, this is the opportunity to illustrate to children, “ see his face? Is he happy or sad? Do you think he likes this game? It doesn’t look like he is having fun, so let’s stop.”  This is just one way to show children how to understand consent.

Another well-intentioned blunder many parents may make when teaching children their body autonomy is to hug, kiss, or cuddle a child without asking first. It seems so natural to pull a child into an embrace or plant a kiss on their forehead, but in truth, adults should be asking before doing these things to children, especially with unfamiliar family or friends. While some older relatives may get hurt feelings when a grandchild rejects a hug or a kiss, they are adults and they will be okay! The children, however, are learning how to assert themselves and their personal space. They are asked to kiss a grandparent with scary looking wrinkles and smelling of muscle rub, and we pressure them into it without realizing that’s what we are doing. They learn from this that their own “No” doesn’t work. They may stop using if it doesn’t work as its intended. Then we have a child who isn’t empowered enough to say that they don’t want hugs from schoolmates, and children who don’t know how to recognize consent, which when combined, lead towards a lot of hurt feelings. The child who wants a hug may not understand why a friend doesn’t want his hug, and a child who said no and was hugged anyway is learning that he or she cannot assert themselves when it comes to unwanted touches.

We need to lead by example and resist hugging and kissing our own children if they seem uncomfortable or withdraw consent. We need to tell them they don’t have to kiss grandma right now if they don’t want to. We can give them skills to fill their need for touch by redirecting them to be closer with us than with their peers, teaching them that – yes, we like our friends, but some people don’t like hugs at all, and that’s okay. We need to teach them to ask first before touching and help them to recognize nonverbal cues from others as well. We can practice with them, “Can I have a hug?” and “can I hold your hand?”  They’ll learn to express their consent and to recognize it in others by following our lead.

This article is part of a young child health and wellness series posted for the benefit of parents by Prime Time Early Learning Centers.  Prime Time is a family owned child care company that provides Infant Care, After Care, PreK, Prekindergarten, and Summer Camp programs for children from six weeks to 10 years of age in Paramus, Edgewater, Hoboken and East Rutherford New Jersey, and in Middletown (Wallkill) and Farmingdale (Babylon) New York.  See what parents have to say about their experience with Prime Time Early Learning Centers on Google and Yelp!

Prime Time serves families in zip codes: 10940, 12589, 07652,07653, 07630, 07649, 07450, 07451, 07020, 07024, 07010, 07047, 07030, 07086, 07307, 07302, 07310, 07306, 07071, 07073, 07094, 07072, 07074, 07094, 07070, 07071, 11735, 11737, 11704, 11703, 11747.