14 Essential Tips for Teaching Boundaries to Kids


If you’re the parent of young children, you probably aren’t especially keen on giving them control over much of anything. We’re at that painful preschool phase with Sprocket when we’re talking her through things like proper handwashing and solo tooth brushing, and I’m not going to lie: It’s pretty painful standing by and watching sometimes.

However, one of the things we as parents should empower our kids to do as soon as they have any level of comprehension is to exercise ownership and agency over their own bodies. It’s important even the youngest of toddlers understand how to communicate their preferences regarding how their body is interacted with. Here are some tactics you can use to start early in modeling and teaching boundaries to kids, and start building the framework for understanding more complex issues around consent later in life.

The Foundations of Teaching Boundaries to Kids

Communicating with your kids about touch and consent should be a lifelong process – and it should start early. If the first you’re broaching this topic is for the birds and bees chat, you’re way, way behind the curve. Before you even get to the fundamentals of teaching more involved issues around consent, though, you need to give your kids a foundation of principles to build upon.

Here’s how you can make this a natural part of your daily life right from the jump:

Establish a communication framework.

Talking about how we would like our bodies interacted with, even from an early age, lays the building blocks for having more complicated conversations dealing with consent down the road. Ensuring your child knows their feelings and desires are valid, and conditioning them to express them, strengthens their voice for later seasons of life when their boundaries are challenged and you’re not around.

That conditioning starts with letting go – that is, not trying to control your kids’ emotional responses. If you’re saying things to your children like, “Stop being angry,” or “It’s silly to be scared of that,” or “We don’t need to feel sad about that,” you’re training them to stifle any emotions you are unlikely to approve of.

So what happens if they have an inappropriate encounter with a peer or adult? They may fear your response and try to hide the fact it occurred – precisely what you don’t want to happen. You can’t institute an emotional filter so you’re not bothered by what you see as nonsense while the “important stuff” is allowed a fair hearing. Encourage your kids to talk about their emotions, and help them navigate them.

Emphasize your kids’ general power over their own bodies.

Empower your kids to exercise control over their own bodies. When you’re dealing with negative behavior, remind your kids that they are in control of their own bodies. Whether they do things like stomp, slam doors, or hit and kick is completely up to them. Nobody is forcing them to do those things, and they’ll be accountable to them. They have the power to control how their emotions get translated to movement, and you need to help them begin to exercise and strengthen it.

Lay groundwork on what a physical boundary looks like.

As soon as they’re old enough to comprehend, you should be teaching boundaries regarding respecting others’ bodies and personal space. With kids this age, it has to take the form of periodic asides in conversation. Teaching boundaries to kids with a Big Conversation on everything they need to learn about touch consent is going to culminate in them wandering off 45 seconds in. If you’re lucky.

This shouldn’t ideally look like teaching – it should look like conversation. Find opportunities to ask questions designed to stimulate it:

  • Should we ever bother someone when they’re sleeping?
  • Should we ask before giving someone a hug?
  • What do you do when you’re playing and someone asks to stop?

Take their responses and steer them toward a healthy understanding of touch. It takes planting one seed at a time. They won’t all bear fruit, but the ones that do will be worth the effort.

Tips for Teaching Boundaries to Kids

Once your child has a basic understanding of the principles behind touch consent, it’s time to start having more detailed talk about it – which will take the form of statements and conversation. This is a years-long endeavor, but how exactly do you start having it? What are some of the ways you can practically implement this teaching in the context of your daily life at home?

Use scientific anatomical terms in a matter-of-fact way.

It’s not a “willy” or a “wee-wee.” It’s a penis.

It’s not a “cookie” or a “hoo-ha.” It’s a vulva.

Using coded language to refer to particular body parts teaches kids they’re shameful in some way and must be referred to only obliquely, and giggling through the use of proper vocabulary gives the impression privates are somehow comedic. You don’t snicker when you refer to their hair or elbows, so try not to here.

Listen, I get it. It’s hard to stifle a chuckle at a toddler prattling on at length about his penis, or coining ad hoc songs about her vagina. But do your best to normalize matter-of-fact discussions about body parts so they don’t seem salacious or something to keep secret – because if something untoward happens involving them, you want that openness in communication with you to kick in immediately.

Teach your kids all private areas – theirs and others’ – should stay private.

Most instances of teaching boundaries to kids would likely include telling them not to let anyone look at, photograph, or touch their private areas. Sometimes the reciprocal isn’t as strongly warned against, though – warning against their being coerced into viewing or touching someone else’s, which is where sexual abuse can often start. Kids are no less victimized by this than when they’re on the receiving end of touch, so include this angle in your conversations over time.

Different People, Different Touch.

Begin early in teaching what sort of touch is appropriate for whom. After morning cuddles with your toddler, you might say something along the lines of, “Cuddles are only for family and not other people, right?” If you’re assisting with washing, wiping, or medicating their genitals or rectal area, you might say, “Only Mama and Dada should touch you here, right?”

Not anywhere near every time, mind you – this is something you might raise once in a blue moon. And you don’t need to turn each occasion into a full-blown after school special (I’m painfully aware how thoroughly I’m dating myself here even as I write the words). Just a reinforcing comment in the moment, and then you both move on with your day.

The inverse is true, as well. There will be opportunities to teach your child how to navigate situations in which touch is appropriate. If a shopkeeper offers a high five or a waitress goes for a fist bump, ensure you give your child the choice about whether to engage, but make clear these things are okay to engage in if they wish.

There are intimacy level differences going from high fives and handshakes to pats and hugs to cuddles and kisses which are a matter of course to you, but which your child may have trouble drawing borders between at a young age. You’ll have to help your child navigate those differences one conversation and interaction at a time.

Again, it’s all about sowing seeds. They may not eventually remember one particular conversation, but over time they’ll have the benefit of having internalized the premise.

Get other family members on the same page.

This may be a bit of a sticky wicket depending on the people you’re going to have to get on board. However, you need to do your level best to tame the cheek pinchers and forceable huggers in your family ranks. This begs foresight – nobody is going to benefit from embarrassing these people chastising them in the moment.

Find an opening for a message or aside in conversation something along the lines of, “Hey, when you next see [kid], could you try to remember to ask for a hug and kiss? We’re trying to teach a bit about asking first for (school/daycare).”

On the other end of an encounter, you need to discourage adults from overriding kids’ requests about ending touch. If they’re trying to squirm away from kisses, they shouldn’t be overpowered for a couple more. If they’re asking for tickling to stop, they shouldn’t get an extra round just for a few more giggles. If they turn down a request for touch, they shouldn’t be shamed or pouted at in order to gain compliance.

Everyone in the family should give your kids latitude to control how their bodies are touched. That takes a shift in framing and phrasing:

“Come give me a hug” becomes “Would you like a hug?”

“Go give Grandma a kiss” becomes “Do you want to give Grandma a kiss?”

We can’t take for granted that a child wants a particular type of touch just because we deem it pleasant. They should be given the option to decline – and if they do, that decision needs to be respected. They shouldn’t be badgered to reconsider. No, “Oh, come on, just one hug.” No, “Aw, Grandma came all this way, she really wants a kiss.”

Once it’s declined, that’s the end of it. Unless they reconsider of their own accord without prompting, move on with your merry day. If you were in a bad mood and two people were harassing you about wanting hugs and not taking no for an answer, you’d have a couple of opinions about that, I just imagine.

If you want your child to understand what “No” should mean at 24 years old and 14 years old, the word needs to wield the same power for them at four years old.

Badgering and overpowering are coercive acts, even if there’s no malice behind them. We need to impress upon our kids that they have the license to control what happens to their bodies. We don’t want to establish the paradigm that resisting an adult’s attempts to touch them is futile.

I’d like to think everyone in your life would be willing to accommodate you in these things. They might forget in the moment, but I’m hoping nobody looks you in the eye and says, “No, I’m not going to do that.” But if so, I’m afraid you’ve got an uncomfortable conversation and set of decisions to make about how you proceed. Teaching boundaries to kids may demand enforcing some boundaries with adults.

Establish privacy expectations in the household.

This is an area in which best practices are going to vary wildly based on factors like the genders of the parent(s) and kids, the kids’ ages, developmental stages, personal temperaments, parents’ culture and upbringing, physical space in the home, and a hundred other things. The main thing to remember is consistency. Once a threshold is crossed – aging out of being present when you change clothes, go to the bathroom, and so on – stick to it as best you can.

If you’re insisting on their knocking on your bedroom door before entering one week and shruggy about intrusions the one after – or if one parent is blasé about it and the other is a stickler – you’re going to leave your kids pretty confused about what’s acceptable. One way we try to honor this in our household is making sacrosanct the concept of “private time.” If the Unflustered Mother or I need privacy, we tell Sprocket we need private time. That makes the room we’re in off-limits to her until we leave it of our own accord. She’s not to enter, nor is she to pester us with knocking or whining through the door.

Conversely, she can request private time of us. In addition to bathroom use, she is free to claim private time and retreat to her room to be alone. Unless we’re in momentum headed out of the house or there’s some compelling reason it’s not feasible, we do our best to give her that latitude, and allow her to stay as long as it’s practical to do so. Getting that dynamic started early has paid dividends when Tater gets crabby and Sprocket needs to escape the noise.

Be nuanced in how you teach about strangers.

It is wholly inadequate to make your “stranger danger” instruction a rote “don’t ever talk to strangers” and leave it at that. If they heed your instruction, they’ll be relegated to standing mute off to the side at every interaction you have with an adult. And the second they get separated from you in public, they’ll be completely isolated and fearful of making anyone aware of their predicament. The result could be needlessly extending a fearful situation for both of you. Or much, much worse.

Instead, use a bit of nuance. Instead of, “Never talk to strangers,” make it, “Unless you’re in trouble, don’t talk to strangers if we aren’t with you.” Then, try to establish classes of strangers (as I’ll touch more on later). This is less something you can map out a huge lesson plan for, and more finding organic opportunities to make clear, for instance, that talking to a police officer is always okay, while going along with a stranger asking for help is never okay – “An adult will never need a kid’s help – if they ask you to come help them it’s a trick.”

In terms of your instruction, make sure you’re not overemphasizing the danger strangers actually pose. Only 7% of juvenile sexual abuse cases involve a person completely unknown to the child. So make a point of highlighting the fact that what you’re saying applies to everyone, even if they’re on a first name basis with your child.

Encourage early self-care of private areas.

As soon as it’s practical to do so, teach your kids how to care for their own needs when it comes to caring for their private areas. Training on how to effectively clean themselves and wipe after toilet use will take patient instruction, especially when you’re trying to do it early. Perhaps you’ll need a transition of demonstrating and then inviting them to practice, and you’ll need to supervise – especially early on – to ensure they’re being effective. But most kids are capable of learning this skill at a younger age than you might give them credit for.

Words like “no” and “stop” are final. For everyone.

When anybody – parent, child, extended family, playmate, whomever – asks to stop being touched, it should be honored immediately. We think about this for kids, but we have the same right to ourselves as adults, as well. You might be tempted to feel badly for turning down a kid who wants to clamber all over you, but I would urge you not to.

For one, it serves as a learning opportunity to teach boundary observance. Many kids’ natural inclination is to close distance and touch touch touch, and they need opportunities to learn how to check that. Second, though, it also protects you from getting touched out as a caretaker. I mean, if you’re completely keen, obviously have at it. Dogpile on the floor and be a goof.

But if you need a minute, take a minute.

Infants can get plopped in a high chair with some dry finger food or into a playpen; a toddler or preschooler can be bought off with a seldom-employed toy or have a timer set for them to honor when it comes to touch. If you’re getting pulled, grabbed, climbed over, bellyflopped on, and kicked all day long without respite – when you’re not being pressed into service as a horse or rocket or passenger train – you’re going to be a frazzled mess at the end of the day. And days on end of that is going to make you irritated and bitter, even if you’re doing your utmost to guard against it.

Take the license you have to tell your kids you don’t want to be touched for a while, and hold that line. There are lessons to be learned in it.

Don’t get cornered into physically overpowering your kids.

When I was a police officer, I always felt a weight of responsibility when I got my handcuffs out. I took a rather philosophical view of my role in law enforcement – in a free society, there should rightly be a high bar you need to clear to encumber someone’s physical liberty. I got a lot of training on how to use verbal persuasion and deescalation techniques to prevent my having to do that unless absolutely necessary, and did my best to not fly straight to a course of detention.

As a parent, you need to take this same frame of mind into your interactions with your kids. Now, early days with infants beg different considerations. If your eight month old is trying to play rotisserie chicken and roll off the change table with a blown out diaper, some of her preferences may have to get overridden in order to ensure her needs are met.

However, if we’re talking about toddlers whom we can communicate with, there should be precious little cause for having to hold them down or otherwise physically overpower them to do something. Every time you do this to a child, you’re subjecting them to a deep feeling of powerlessness when it comes to their agency over their own body.

Sometimes physical intervention is just unavoidable, such as in an emergency, administering necessary medical care, or when a child is being physically aggressive or destructive. But the vast majority of the time, there are ways around using brute force on your child to get them to do something. That might involve a timer to countdown and prepare them for something, giving them options regarding how to proceed with something, or distracting them with a treat or toy, depending on the particular circumstances at play.

Depending on your background and upbringing, you may bristle at this a bit. “They’re children,” you might say. “They shouldn’t make the rules, right? If I say it’s time to go, it’s time to go, and if they don’t like it they can just get hauled out of the house by their ankles.” Convert that action into the underlying verbal message, though:

"It's useless resisting an adult who's physically overpowering you. Just let them."

That’s a rather squirmier proposition, isn’t it? And you’d probably protest and cite your station as a parent, and I don’t argue your place in your child’s life isn’t special. But you’re not – or at least won’t long be – unique in being an adult authority figure over your child.

If you haven’t figured this out for yourself yet, small children are not masters of nuance and distinction. So if you don’t want a child who has been trained to acquiesce to coercion when it comes to his or her body, don’t make a habit of ignoring or overriding their physical autonomy.

Characterize unacceptable secrets to your kids.

There are physical and emotional aspects to teaching boundaries to kids – but don’t neglect the rhetorical. Abusers employ their victims in helping them construct veils of secrecy on pain of something – embarrassment, retraction of privilege, and so on. Ensure you inoculate against this in your teaching process.

Early on, this may just need to be a blanket ban: “It’s never okay to keep secrets from Mama and Dada, even if another adult tells you to.” Young toddlers won’t be good at drawing distinctions between the harmless and the sinister, and it’s worth the risk of having a birthday or Christmas gift surprise busted to make sure they’re being open with you.

Later, you can get a little more nuanced and specify that body secrets are not okay. No matter who’s trying to get them kept, anything to do with someone’s body – and especially private parts, obviously – is not to be kept from you. Also, you should warn your kids about secrets meant to be kept forever. Innocent secrets will almost without exception have an expiration date – the contents of a Christmas gift or a surprise party, for instance.

Secrets someone expects to be kept into perpetuity are a red flag. Teach your kids that if someone – especially an adult – tries to swear them to secrecy forever, that’s weird and something you should be told about at once.

Use role-playing scenarios as a teaching tool.

Toddlers aren’t going to fully benefit from a lecture about boundaries, or listening to you opine about the philosophical underpinnings of personal space and autonomy. Those things are fine, but where the rubber will likely meet the road here is in role-play: Giving your child a set of mental templates for how to navigate uncomfortable or challenging situations.

The best scenarios to cover will be contextual to each child based on a host of factors, but here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Practice saying “no” to unwanted hugging.

Have your child imagine they’re not in the mood for a hug, but someone is trying to get them to give one anyway. Get them to practice saying, “No thank you” or “Not right now, please” and taking a step back.

2. Give a visual cue representing personal bubbles.

A small child isn’t going to understand the concept of “personal space” or a “personal bubble” very well in and of itself. So use something to create a perimeter around your child, like a hula hoop, jump rope, or chalk line, and explain that every person is entitled to this space around them, and if you want to enter it, you need their permission.

3. Give an action plan for getting separated in public.

This bounces back to my point about classes of strangers. If you get separated from your child in public, you don’t necessarily want them broadcasting their vulnerability or approaching people at random. There should be a preferred order to whom they solicit help from:

  • Uniformed public safety officers (first responders and security guards)
  • Uniformed workers (cashiers, waitstaff, utility and maintenance workers)
  • Other parents with children
  • Elders

For the places you visit most often, walk through what your child should do in the event you get separated there. What that conversation will look like will change vastly depending on the circumstances, but the overarching aim is to get the assistance of one of the above people and to not leave the premises.

The best way to approach this entire topic, in the end, is to put it in its proper place. It’s not an isolated lecture, but a smaller part of a much larger education. If you’re cultivating an atmosphere of respect, consent is going to naturally flow out of that place, because consent at its base is an exercise in showing respect to someone.

This will all take work. Having nuanced conversations, taking time to patiently explain abstract concepts, talking through hypothetical scenarios – it’s going to take an investment of time and effort, for sure. But it will pay dividends in the years to come, when you have kids to whom you’ve gifted a healthy sense of self-worth and a keen understanding of what a healthy relationship should, and shouldn’t, look like.

It also sets the table for having kids who are confident, compassionate, respectful, and equipped to handle other complex issues in stride.

And who wouldn’t want that?

This post was previously published on The Unbothered Father.


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