As parents, I think most of us want our children to have a healthy sense of body image, body boundaries and listening to their own intuition. All children should feel safe and supported regarding their bodies and sense of self.
When A was preschool age, we were at the beach and a man on a pier above us yelled down something about her being cute. I rushed her on and stared him down, because my gut didn’t feel like this was an appropriate compliment from a stranger. Around that same age, I remember an uncle giving her a dollar for a game and telling her she should give him a kiss for it. I told her she didn’t have to kiss him unless she wanted to. This lead to a discussion around our belief that we don’t force friends or relatives to hug/kiss for thank you, hello or goodbye unless they want to. We want our children to be OK with saying yes or no and to learn to follow their intuition.
A is now a preteen and growing into a young woman. S and Z are not far behind; growing into young men. We have many conversations around biology, breastfeeding, body awareness, body boundaries, personal and private in our home. These are not one-time “birds and bees” talks but rather ongoing dialog. They are an integral part of how we parent.
In my experience, boundaries and body awareness begin with babyhood and the mother/baby breastfeeding dyad. For example, when A bit me while teething at 4 months I gently told her “no bite” and put her down for a minute before resuming our breastfeeding. I have done similar with S and Z because I felt from the start it was best that I set my personal boundaries. They are learning to set their own boundaries and follow my example. Learning to breastfeed without hurting mommy is the first way to gently guide a child about other people’s body boundaries.
During the toddler and preschool years, parents all experience similar issues around body awareness. These include self-exploration of bodies, learning body part names (we use correct biological titles), and learning about things like family rules for modesty in different settings such as when around extended family or friends. This is a wonderful stage for learning about toileting and working out how our bodies move and grow on the playground. This is where children learn about mental and physical limits as they try to keep up with other children or try out new skills.
Parents may wonder why think about healthy boundaries and sexuality mindfulness at this age? This leads to great teaching moments on not hitting, biting or kicking our friends. We encourage asking our friends permission for hugs or high fives and having others ask our children’s permission as well. As they grow this leads to understandings regarding sleep-over behavior, locker room, the way we conduct ourselves on the playground and so on… I hope that when our children are older they can use this knowledge to stand up to uncomfortable situations and have a healthy sense of their own boundaries and emotions. When other parents see how we encourage healthy boundaries, it really opens up conversations among parents too.
Books really help us to chat with our children and bring up good questions for us to discuss at each stage. They include books on going to the doctor, feelings, being healthy, eating healthy, self-esteem, safety and more…