Thursday, August 8, 2013

Teaching boundaries

At a touch over 10 months old, Ellie is getting to the stage where she is asserting herself in different ways. One of the ways she expresses it at the moment is through clinginess. She has developed what day care call a 'case of separation anxiety' and what Mr Fork and I lovingly call 'velcro baby'. She loves to be held. If you put her on the ground or leave the room for a moment when she doesn't want you to, she will wail inconsolably and speedily crawl for you.

I have always respected her as a small person and communicated with her as I would anyone - that is, no baby talk, although I do adjust my words for her age. We have used baby sign language since she was small, and I see no need to sneak away from her or tear her from my arms without explanation. I distinguish between short and long absences by me telling her I am going somewhere for '5 minutes' versus 'bye bye'. Lately both of those announcements/signs have usually been met with real tears and her little arms tightening around me. She is only this small for such a short time - I'm in no rush so I make sure I allow extra time at day care for her to feel comfortable with me leaving, for example.

Another thing Ellie has been doing is reaching out for people now. When she wants to be picked up or held, she will lift her arms and indicate this. If she is being held and wants to go into someone else's arms, she will reach for that person, and if not passed over fast enough will try to leap there herself. If she does not want to go, she will cling on tighter to whoever is holding her and tuck her head into their shoulder.

This is a top down view of Ellie burrowed in for a snuggle.
I personally believe that children are tiny humans and as such they have the same rights as bigger humans do. They are in charge of their bodies and by extension, they are in charge of their own instincts and desires. If Ellie doesn't want to go to another person, who am I to disregard her wishes and hand her over regardless of her feelings? This has caused a fair amount of hurt and consternation among my family and friends, especially my dad, who tried to grab Ellie from me for cuddles only to be met with ear piercing screams when she didn't want to go the other day. She stopped crying as soon as she was back in my arms.

I want Ellie to know unconditionally that intimacy and affection are always hers to control. She should never feel obliged to give it to someone else for their benefit if it isn't what she wants to do. Just because social norms demand she provide affection on cue, I say to her that actually, it is and always will be her choice. I'll stand up for that choice for her too - otherwise I'm just teaching her that actually, no doesn't mean no and mummy will stand silently by while people (friends or strangers) force intimacy that she doesn't want to give.

My hope is that this tiny lesson helps show Ellie that she doesn't need to tailor her responses to please other people. Being held is a personal thing, no matter how innocent the intent. The fact is that babies are so small and helpless that we forget they take in a lot of what goes in around them. By teaching Ellie that she has a choice in physical contact and how to respond to friendly advances, I hope that I am also educating her about gracefully recognising and acknowledging others while respecting her own boundaries. I want to make her understand that if she ever feels uncomfortable or pressured into something, that she has an absolute right to say no - even if it offends. If she doesn't want to have a cuddle with someone then she can wave at them or offer a high five instead. After she was back in my arms and settled again, she spontaneously reached for granddad, and this time went willingly into his arms for cuddles at her instigation.

My daughter may be small, but she is learning about boundaries and about personal space. By allowing her to make her own choices and doing it early and in a consistent manner, I hope this will stand her in good stead in the future. I know her daddy will be very pleased that she has a clear understanding that no really does mean no. After all, in the immortal words of Dr Seuss "a person's a person, no matter how small".

What about you? How do you handle boundaries with children?

1 comment:

  1. So true! I've always felt awkward when parents try to insist their child give me or someone else a kiss when saying goodbye. If we don't start this now when do you teach our girls that they are allowed to have personal space boundaries?

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