Rachel Heath

Intentional Living: learning to be fully present

On Teaching Toddlers to Own Their Bodies

Adults behave curiously around small children. It’s something I’ve noticed since having my own child, and it’s a mixed bag. I appreciate when people kneel down to speak to Isabella on her level; I understand when people change their tone of voice; I don’t mind when people ignore me and address their conversation to her.

What I can’t understand is why adults would treat a child in a way that they wouldn’t dream of treating a fellow adult. People get inches from her face, freely touch her, and fail to interpret basic body language. Many people don’t seem to think twice about expressing physical affection with a child who is a complete stranger, as if children were public property.

I suspect this happens to most children but I feel like this happens a lot with Isabella. I’m definitely biased, but her remarkable cuteness invites attention from people nearly everywhere we go.

A few weeks ago, we were at a social event with friends and acquaintances, most of whom recognize Izzy but don’t really have a relationship with her. At one point while I was holding her, a man at the party came up and said hello to her. She did the usual tuck-my-head-into-mommy’s-neck-and-glower-warily-at-stranger move. He tickled her ribs and gently teased her about being shy, and she cuddled hard into me. (If you have kids you know the move- when they tuck their legs up tight and try to make themselves disappear into you.) When he tried a couple more times, she finally said, “No! Stop!” several times, quietly but forcefully. He playfully poked her a few more times before I wrapped my free arm around her and turned away, mumbling something about how she was overstimulated.

That night I couldn’t stop thinking about this incident. I feel a little bad writing about it because the guy is a friend that we know and trust, and I know that he had the purest of intentions- to interact and play with my daughter. But I felt bothered that he – like nearly every adult we encounter – had no sense of boundaries and completely failed to read Isabella’s basic body language and even her clear words.

What bothered me more was that I failed to enforce Isabella’s comfort zone when she wasn’t able to do it herself. In that moment, I chose to help him save face instead of protect my daughter. It doesn’t matter that an adult isn’t doing anything wrong, it matters that Isabella feels uncomfortable or unsafe. And because I was afraid of offending this person, I didn’t do my job.

You might think, what’s the big deal? It’s just a little innocent tickling. She’s fine.

We’re going to get deep here, but just for a second. Not many people know this about me, but I was sexually abused for many years as a kid. I’ve gone through intensive therapy and inner healing and today I’m really and truly whole. But because of my experience, I’m extremely protective of my child.

We’ve all heard the stats- 1 of every 4 girls will be molested by the age of 18. I was. My daughter will not be.

Because we can’t be with our children all the time, it’s important to be intentional about teaching them to protect themselves. Children’s brains are hard-wired during the early years, and every experience shapes their behavoir and how they relate to the world.

I think the first and most basic thing you can do with young kids is teach them that they have ownership over their own bodies. How do you do that?

1. Respect their boundaries during physical play

Most of us can easily tell the difference between a playful “stop, haha!” and a serious “stop!” while tickling or roughhousing. When they seriously ask you to stop, stop. She needs to know that she has the power to accept or reject physical affection from anyone. A playful poke might not seem like a big deal to us, but it can be a huge violation of trust to a child.

2. Respect their boundaries when giving affection

I’ll admit that it’s not always easy for Stephen and I. We’re both very affectionate people and we love to love on our little girl. But when she pushes me away when I try to kiss her cheek, or says, “No, down,” when Stephen scoops her up for a hug, we listen. As a trusted adult, your child looks to you to help establish and enforce her boundaries. Remember, just because that cute little kid is too little to physically prevent you from tickling them, kissing them, or picking them up, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for you to do it.

3. Hold them to the same expectations

Isabella stopped nursing a few months ago, and she still absentmindedly pulls at my shirt or feels my chest. When she does it, I gently but firmly tell her, “I don’t like it when you pull my shirt down.” When she climbs on my lap and jams her elbow into my pregnant belly, I stifle a yelp and remind her “That hurt me. I’d love to have you on my lap, but only if you can sit still.”

4. Employ non-physical consequences

There are times when I have to forcibly remove Isabella from a location, but whenever possible, I give her the option to remove herself, and she usually does. Stephen and I, for a variety of reasons, don’t use spanking or any other kind of corporal punishment. One reason is that I think this sends the child a message that their body doesn’t belong to them; it tells them that a violation of physical boundaries by an authority figure is an appropriate consequence for misbehavior. This is especially powerful considering that the vast majority of child molesters are adults who are in a position of trust and authority in a child’s life.

5. Use anatomically correct terminology

If you exhibit a comfort level with the correct words for the human body, children will naturally develop a comfort level with their own body. More importantly, child molesters are not going to talk to your daughter about her vagina. If she starts calling it a cupcake, you’ve got some investigating to do.

6. Teach about appropriate and necessary touch

Obviously, there are times when genuine necessity trumps a child’s objections, like diaper changes and doctor visits. Certain people in certain situations will have to touch your child even if it makes him uncomfortable. Now is a great time to start discussing these necessities and laying out the appropriate circumstances for them to occur. For instance, it’s ok for a doctor to touch you at the doctor’s office when mommy or daddy is with you. It’s not ok for an adult to take you to a room alone and “play doctor.”


I couldn’t get the incident at that party out of my head, because I feel like I failed. In the grand scheme of things, that one moment isn’t going to have a huge long-term impact, but realizing that every experience shapes a young child’s understanding of her world, it made me want to get a little more serious about teaching Isabella that her body belongs to her. Period. Even if it offends an adult.

Even if you don’t have your own kids, you can still help to instill this sense of body ownership. When interacting with a little one, follow the same unwritten social rules you would with an adult: give them some space; watch their body language and facial expressions; don’t dismiss their words, (no matter how cute they sound); show them respect and respond to their cues.


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20 thoughts on “On Teaching Toddlers to Own Their Bodies

  1. Rachel, I actually think there’s something to this. When my son and daughter were younger, they used to get in the typical sibling squabbles. I taught my son over and over, “Stop when she says NO”. I wanted him to learn that lesson for his own protection too. As mama’s we have to listen to our guts.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately- we’re having a baby boy in April and I feel that it’s SUCH an important lesson for boys to learn respect other people’s bodies. I’ve been wondering how to practically apply that lesson and yours is a great example.

      • This prompted a really good conversation with my walking buddy this morning. She has a new grandson, and I shared your content with her. Lively discussion. I love posts like this that make me think. Thanks.

  2. Great, great post, and needed. Thank you. Passing this on.

  3. I would just like to congratulate you on a brilliantly written and insightful piece. You are fabulous parents! As a parent of grown up kids, and a person who has been in a place of trust with children for the vast majority of my life, it is wonderful to hear a young mother so in tune with her child’s needs. I have always been seen as an over protective mother, but I carry that title with pride. I did not “smother” my children for fear of outsiders, like you I taught them to speak clearly and with meaning. When adults got to affectionate for their comfort, I would read my child’s body language and intervene. I didn’t and still don’t care that the adult might feel awkward or hurt, my kids trust me totally, even as grown -ups, and that is an amazingly rewarding feeling. 😀 XXX

  4. Rachel– sorry for the multiple comments I’m leaving. I made a reference to this article in my blog post today at http://www.athoughtgrows.blogspot.com.

  5. markadamdouglass on said:

    Powerful, thoughtful ideas.

    I’ve worked with children for many years, and have learnt to let the child come to you, especially as a male. I have taught very physical and hands on things like gymnastics, acrobatics and circus, and I never assume I have physical trust with them. I always ask permission when entering their personal space and assisting them with spotting or helping them onto equipment.

    Even in social situations, I assume this distance, and not surprisingly, feel that I generally build trust with young children much faster than those who force their way into the child’s space.

    Thanks for the helping me to reflect.

    • Mark, this is really cool and SO true. We’ve met a few men who behave this way and it’s obvious how much more comfortable Isabella is with them. What a great perspective to have, especially as someone who works with kids the way you do. Thanks for your comment!

      • markadamdouglass on said:

        Hello Rachel

        I’ve met many parents who said they’re children are very shy and they are quite surprised at how quickly they become comfortable with me.

        Thanks again for a great, thoughtful piece

  6. I totally agree with you. I feel like this sense of respect for my boundaries was verbally spoken to me, but disrespected physically. While I did maintain boundaries, I compromised those boundaries in middles school when a “popular boy” wanted to touch me in places I shouldn’t have let him. I literally sat there while this took place. I am thankful I didn’t become a complete doormat, and as I grew more confident I took a more assertive approach. If our parents respect us, we will take ownership of that respect, and be able to distinguish healthy and unhealthy relationships more easily.

  7. Excellent post. I already do all those things you suggest with my toddler. I think I’m one of the few people I know that respect children’s space as I do adults’. I know I’ve offended a few relatives who were only trying to be affectionate with my son, but he was not comfortable, so I stepped in. My husband didn’t understand that well, and like a lot of adults, he thinks it’s one of those things kids have to endure. I’m going to have him read your post. You explain it so well. Thank you.

  8. Deni Lyn on said:

    This is awesome! Thank you for writing this!

  9. jennsomethingclever on said:

    I love this. I’d also add to your list, don’t force your child to hug or kiss anyone, even grandma, if they don’t want to.

    We have a family member who gives uncomfortably long hugs (to everyone- male or female, young or old) and we had an incident where my son was squirming and yelling, and he wouldn’t let go. I finally had to yell at him myself. It provided a good teaching opportunity on the way home. My son now knows that the protocol goes: say “stop,” then yell, then hit and kick if necessary.

  10. Jennifer from Ignite on said:

    You are spot on correct with this, and I agree with the last comment with “Don’t force your child to hug or kiss anyone, even grandma.” I know it offended my grandmother when I wasn’t thrilled about her trying to kiss me, but she reeked of cigarettes. You have a right to your own body at any age and you share it when you want to, period.

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