Have you ever noticed the way we treat children is so different than we treat adults? Of course, there are some areas where it is obvious children should receive tailored treatment. Their brains aren’t fully developed and they lack the experiences of adults, which can make informed consent impossible. Still, some of the ways we invade children’s boundaries would be enough to result in legal consequences if they were done to an adult.
As a parent, I most often consider the ways my children’s boundaries are being overstepped when someone other than my husband or me violates said boundaries. There are a lot of obvious interactions that would solicit a lingering side eye or a mama bear stare down. However, we often forget that, as parents, we are equally, if not more likely, to be the individual who leaves a lasting impression upon our kids when their boundaries aren’t respected.
Children ages two to about 10 years old experience the worst of it. Our parenting customs seem to suggest that young children, particularly those who haven’t yet reached pre-teen status, haven’t earned the right to boundaries, let alone personal space. We forget that all children deserve respect, privacy, and bodily autonomy.
Below are several ways we could (unintentionally) invalidate our children or trample boundaries. These are things we should be aware of, so we can advocate for our children when they are unable to advocate for themselves.
1. Kissing babies/children
Few things annoy me as much as when a stranger walks up and tries to snuggle my baby. At this age, my daughter isn’t old enough to know something is wrong. But as the parent, I do. We wouldn’t think it was acceptable to approach a random adult and kiss them or snatch them up — as a matter of fact, it could result in criminal charges — so why do people do it to children? Don’t force unwanted or unsolicited physical contact on children. Also, keep your germs to yourself.
2. Forcing hugs
I believe this thought process also applies to the way we try to force children to give hugs to adults. It’s very common to insist they hug relatives. By forcing a child to provide physical affection, we are robbing them of their choice to refuse touch as well as teaching long-term lessons about who controls their body. It’s important that we ensure our children know they have the final say in all things related to their bodies. This means that if they don’t want to hug grandma, that’s okay.
Likewise, why do many of us believe it’s okay to spank our children? Just because it happened to many of us as kids, doesn’t make it okay. Correcting these behaviors is challenging, but necessary to raise emotionally stable children. Again, let’s keep in mind that if an adult physically hurts, strikes or lashes out at another adult, it is considered illegal assault. So, why do we try to rationalize treating our children in this way? Science doesn’t support it, the AAP advocates against it, and there is no defense for it.
4. Forcing them to do something
As an adult, if I tell someone “no,” chances are that my wishes will be respected. But for some reason, with children, we ignore them when they express their desire not to perform an action. Sure, there are moments that we must veto our children’s decisions (no, you cannot have ice cream for breakfast every day) but as a society, we invalidate them from the start.
Wanna know what makes this even more puzzling? We raise our children with the underlying belief that we, as parents, have the power to veto their decisions. But we have hopes that those same children will be independent, autonomous individuals, capable of speaking up for themselves in the future.
Remember, children learn through doing. If we want children who can think critically and make their own decisions, we have to teach them that their perspectives and voices matter.
5. Denying their feelings
Chances are, you wouldn’t walk up to an upset stranger and tell them, “Fix your face! You have no reason to be upset.” But we do it to our children all the time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve told my son to “stop crying” because I found it unreasonable for him to be upset at that time.
Telling our children when they are allowed to cry, or express emotions, sends confusing messages and can lead to emotional suppression. Children aren’t mini-adults. I’m a grown a** woman and still act out when I’m tired, having a bad week, too hungry, or just don’t feel like interacting with people. Why does age give me the freedom to “act out”? And isn’t it possible our children experience the same “good” and “bad” days that we experience?
Sure, we can assume we know why they have thrown a tantrum when we say, “No, you can’t have a cookie.” But do we really know what the problem is? Maybe not. Little things are big things to young kids.
6. Sharing their business
No one likes a gossip, or at least that’s what we say until it’s time to overhear someone’s business. I can’t imagine what I would do if my mom loudly told my business to a stranger (actually, I can, because I’m pretty sure my mom tells my aunts all of my business). It doesn’t feel great. Interestingly, we find it acceptable to do to our children.
This is particularly problematic for parents of older children. Adolescence is emotionally challenging enough without knowing that your parents have proclaimed your every action to the entire family and all of their friends on Facebook. When our children do things, they are telling them to us in confidence with the hope of confidentiality. Let’s teach our children they have a right to privacy.
Remember, children are learning more about themselves and what they will accept from others at every stage of life.
Our kids absorb intentional and unintentional messages each time they interact with us. And if we have sent the message that their voice, preferences, or body autonomy doesn’t matter, they might end up at risk for future negative experiences.
Those early interactions matter more than we know.