Everyone — even children — needs a space that is just theirs. Sometimes it's a room or designated area of their home, and sometimes it's an invisible force field around their body into which only a chosen few are comfortably allowed. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, parenting expert and author of Teach Respect: That’s My Kid! offers insight and advice on how parents can not only explain the concept of personal space to children, but give their kids a valuable life tool in the process.
What is personal space?
Personal space is commonly explained as the amount of breathing room a person needs in order to feel safe and comfortable, like an invisible bubble. For some that area is very small, allowing people to get physically close. Others require a wider berth, maybe only allowing a select few inside their personal bubble.
According to Dr. Gilboa, it all boils down to respect. "Some kids are natural touchers and cuddlers," says Gilboa, who goes on to explain that close contact isn't a problem if the child's friends feel the same way. "The problems come for a child who needs one millimeter of personal space when they can't understand that not everyone else feels the same. Then we need to teach that child a new way to think about respect."
Gilboa defines respect as knowing what someone else needs from us in order to feel comfortable. She advises laying the foundation by first talking to children about where they may or may not touch someone else. "A good rule that kids can easily remember is this: If a body part would be covered by a bathing suit, you need permission to touch it. Always, even on parents." This can also prepare a child to protect themselves from someone who may want to touch them without their permission. Children who have had conversations on personal privacy and respect are much more likely to speak up if someone crosses a boundary.
Once kids have that basic understanding, parents can expand that explanation to include the invisible force field and the differences between someone who may have a small force field versus someone who requires a little more space in order to feel comfortable.
A child's personal space at home may even extend to a favorite toy, their bed or entire bedroom. Dr. Gilboa stresses the importance of asking permission to touch these things or enter these spaces.
Outside the home
Children who are very touchy-feely with parents and siblings may find that their affectionate ways are not always welcome at school or other activities outside the home. Dr. Gilboa finds that defining "here" rules and "there" rules helps kids understand that the physical closeness of a family bond doesn't always extend to friends or other family members. Even members of your immediate family may have different needs. Each member of the family should be allowed to set the rules for their own personal space.
As children develop more friendships outside the home, parents will notice patterns emerging. "Wrestling, hugging, even cuddling can strengthen friendship," says Gilboa. "The most important piece is the consent of both friends."
In teaching them to respect the personal space of others, parents are giving their children valuable life tools for future relationships. "A child who asks permission to touch grows to be an adult who will respect a romantic partner and ask before any intimacy," Dr. Gilboa predicts. "A kid who knows not to walk into someone's bedroom without permission or jump onto a friend's bed without asking is more likely to be a good roommate someday."
Teaching children to respect the personal space of their peers begins at home with conversations on self-respect. If fostered carefully, this respect will progress into a social tool that your child will use for the rest of his or her life.