The early childhood years are marked by newfound independence. Children are forming their own opinions in these preschool years (ages 2-5), and they are normally not very subtle about expressing them. Developmentally, this is right on track—it’s an important part of God’s design as a child grows into their individual identity. Children are experimenting with drawing boundaries when they assert themselves—often testing out phrases like “NO!” and “I don’t want to” and “I don’t like that.” Asserting their own wants and needs is important, too. Often, we focus only on teaching obedience and forget that there needs to be some room for children to be able to practice using their voice as well. Certainly, part of helping children to learn the ideas of respect and consent is to teach them to respect the rules and boundaries of adults and their own peers. The other part that sometimes gets overlooked in early education is that even young children should be given a certain level of age-appropriate autonomy as well.
What does that look like, practically? It’s not about letting children do (or refuse to do) anything they want. Our first obligation is to keep children safe on all fronts, and teaching them to follow rules and guidelines is imperative. But there are few areas in which children need to be able to draw their own boundaries. Here are a couple of examples:
First, a child needs to be able to have a say in how much physical affection they give and receive. That means that, no matter how cute and cuddly they are, kids do not need to hug or kiss anyone they do not want to. In the early childhood classroom, we often want to welcome small children or comfort them by offering an embrace. This is a wonderful thing—as long as the child has a choice. Even a well-intentioned “I’m just gonna hug you anyway until you smile” is a violation of the child’s personal boundaries and sends a covert message that children are obligated to let adults cross the lines they put into place.
Instead, if a child rejects an offer of a hug, an adult can say “Okay! No means no! But if you change your mind, I’m right here” or “I see you don’t want me to hug you and you get to be the boss of that—would you like a fist bump instead?” or “I heard you say that you don’t want a hug. That’s cool. Would you like a moment?” Related: if a child is giving peer unwelcome physical affection, you can use similar phrasing: “It looks like Anne does not want a hug right now. No means no. Ask her if she’d like a fist bump instead.” Or “Gilbert looks like he does not want you to hold his hand. Let’s give him some space.”
Another safe and appropriate time to respect children’s boundaries is when it comes to participation in activities in your classroom. Though we certainly want kiddos to participate in the curriculum we’ve carefully designed and set up, some children may choose not to participate for a variety of reasons. One way to help form a healthy mindset about this is to imagine going to a church event as an adult. You don’t know anyone yet, and there are people engaged in activities all over the place. You’re new, or had a bad day, or you just need a little while to soak it all in, but just as you’re quietly observing, an enthusiastic person approaches you, physically dragging you from the spot you’ve chosen, and forcing you to jump into an activity you’ve never done before (or worse yet, have done before but don’t enjoy!). Imagine later in the day, if someone starts singing a worship song and while you’re quietly watching, that same overexcited person comes over and starts physically moving your body to match the motions of the worship leader. Surely, even the most extroverted among us can see why that might be problematic.
And yet, sometimes, that’s exactly how it happens in children’s ministry—participation in activities can be viewed as mandatory, or at least highly (and enthusiastically) encouraged. And a child who perhaps is not ready to participate can be seen as disobedient. When we are respecting children’s boundaries, however, adults can encourage but not pressure participation. Children can be given choices so that they feel both respected and safe. If a child is doing something inappropriate or distracting instead of participating in story time, for example, they can be given the choice of sitting in a quiet area with a book or toy OR joining in. This empowers a child to make their own decisions, and still keeps them safe and operating within the boundaries set as guardrails by the adults.
Allowing children to draw their own boundaries when it’s safe and appropriate to do so helps shape their minds and their spirits. It helps them understand concepts like consent and respect. When their own boundaries are valued, they are more apt to value the boundaries of others. It’s a good thing to give children room to decide things like how much affection they’d like and how they’d like to participate in church activities as they form their beliefs about relationships with God and others.