By Lydia Bowers, author of the We Say What’s Okay series
As we begin a new school year, children are excited to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Friendships can be a great source of both satisfaction and frustration, and they help children build social and emotional skills as they navigate the inevitable ups and downs. One of these skills is setting and respecting boundaries—the lines that help us feel safe, loved, and respected in a relationship, and a key to being a good friend.
Some boundaries may be very clear and are generally shared by most people. These include things like not hitting each other. Other hard boundaries may not be shared by everyone, but are still explicit, such as, “I don’t like to be tickled!” All people have expectations for how they want to be treated, and it’s important to respect others’ boundaries. For young children, some of these boundaries may show up in home or classroom rules and guidelines, learning through play, or from adult intervention.
While hard boundaries are clear, other boundaries may be a little tricky. Some teasing may be fun and silly but can shift into something hurtful. Children may be surprised if they are having fun and a friend expresses hurt from the actions. In this case, children can apologize and go back to doing something everyone enjoys.
Have you heard the saying “consent can always be revoked”? It means that even if someone agrees to or gives permission for an activity, they can change their minds at any time. Because friends can change their minds, it is important for children to learn to check in with each other and themselves. They can ask: Is my friend still enjoying this? Are they feeling safe? Am I still enjoying this and feeling safe?
Helping Children Accept Boundaries
How should children respond when a friend is hurt or creates a boundary that the child is not sure about? Help them understand that their reactions are their responsibility. It’s okay to feel hurt or disappointed when someone sets a boundary—feelings are part of being human! When this happens, invite children to stop and think about how their body is feeling and what it is trying to tell them. Then encourage them to think about and try to understand how the boundary-setter might be feeling. This requires empathy. You can help children use their own experiences to try to understand someone else. You might say, “They don’t feel like being hugged right now. Sometimes you don’t like to be tickled, and you know what it feels like not to want to be touched in a certain way. Maybe that’s how they feel?”
Setting a Good Example
“We can provide our children with opportunities for play with their peers. We can offer them suggestions for compromise, and we can intervene when necessary. But our greatest gift may be the examples we set in our own relationships. It is from us, I believe, that our children are likely to learn best.”—Fred Rogers
As adults, we can model setting and respecting boundaries. Not every child likes a hug greeting, for example. A child in your home or classroom might prefer a high-five or handshake instead. So be sure to learn about what the children in your life do and don’t like. Respecting children’s autonomy teaches them that we care about them and their boundaries!
Children are still learning to listen to their bodies, and you can offer support and guidance. Listen and watch for children’s emotional responses. You might say, “I see that your fists are clenched up right now. Sometimes that means we’re feeling frustrated or angry. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?” Tuning in to body cues can help children identify areas where boundary-setting may be helpful. You may need to give words to a child’s boundaries or help them define a boundary. For example: “It’s okay to tell your friend, ‘I don’t like when you touch my hair. Please stop!’”
Lydia Bowers is a speaker, consultant, and trainer who happily exists in the Venn diagram overlap between early childhood and sex education. After spending almost two decades working directly with children as a classroom teacher and a parent, she is passionate about reframing sexuality conversations. Lydia now teaches families and educators how to talk to children about subjects like gender, reproduction, and abuse. When she’s not traveling around the country for conferences and speaking engagements, she lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children and adds to her growing collection of children’s book character tattoos as often as she can. Follow her on TikTok @lydiatalksconsent.
Lydia is the author of the We Say What’s Okay series.
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