I have heard a lot of parents express that they feel helpless regarding the safety of their children and the world they will grow up into. WE ARE NOT HELPLESS. There are some powerful things we can do as parents and educators, right from the start, that will help our children – boys and girls – learn about boundaries and consent.
Here I will explain some of the things I teach and encourage as both a Mum and educator of children in the early years. As with most things – starting young is key.
1. Teach “When you say stop, it stops”
I often advise parents to work together to create phrases or affirmations to use at home to help create and maintain ‘rules’ or boundaries. They can help children to understand and to listen and they can become an anchor when things get fraught.
We have used this phrase “When you say stop, it stops” in our household from the start. This mainly relates to physical boundaries. We have empowered both our children so that when they say stop the ‘other’ stops IMMEDIATELY.
IT WORKS. If you make a point of implementing this firmly each and every time a child says ‘stop!’, it will become a hard and fast rule. So when you are tickling your child, tell them ‘say stop if you want me to stop’, and make sure you do. Their laughter may not always mean enjoyment. We need to give them that control.
My daughter knows how to shout STOP and she knows it will stop. Teaching these boundaries young is very important. My son knows absolutely that when someone says stop, he stops IMMEDIATELY. He also knows he can shout stop too.
2. Teach “Stop, I don’t like it!”
Similar to the last example, but this is for more subtle harassment, rather than physical. The annoyances. When somebody keeps going, saying things you don’t like, following you, getting too close, crossing boundaries.
This is one my parents gave to me as an incredibly shy 3 year old who was being harassed by a little boy at nursery each day. They practiced this phrase over and over with me at home. They encouraged me to say it loudly over and over again. I would NEVER have done it on my own, but that next Monday at nursery, I turned and I shouted, “STOP, I DON’T LIKE IT!” in that boy’s face and he stopped dead. The staff were aware. The boy was aware. And I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life right there. Now I teach all the children in my care to say, “Stop, I DON’T LIKE IT!” loud and clear. Again- it creates clear boundaries and enables children to use their voice.
3. “Do you want to say goodbye?”
You can ask your child quietly, ‘Do you want to hug grandma/ uncle john?’ and if they say “no”, then help to set the boundary for your child. Speak up for them by saying ‘Amy doesn’t feel comfortable with goodbyes so she is just going to wave from the window,’ or ‘Harry doesn’t really like kisses so maybe you could give him a high five instead’. You will be teaching your child one of the biggest skills they will learn: ‘I don’t have to do something I don’t want to do in order to make another person feel more comfortable. I have a voice and my boundaries matter.’
4. Strong willed vs permissive
Having strong willed and opinionated children can be a struggle. But think long term. Teach children to argue back in a respectful way. Praise the child for using their voice, their logic or their negotiation skills. Listen to them. Encourage outside of the box thinking, but have expectations that it is done respectfully. If a child can give a good argument for why they can wear their fancy dress costume to the supermarket, listen and think, fair enough – you’re explaining that in the best way you can and I respect that, fine, let’s go. Choose your battles, listen to your child and you may find they become able to communicate more clearly and confidently as a result. We want this!
I always think connection over control. We don’t always have to ‘win’ as adults. We can teach our children a lot by giving them some control.