Personal space is something that most mothers lack from the moment they conceive. From conception, this tiny human being begins to take over your body and by month nine, your personal space has become something foreign to you. This is even more apparent if you have other young children in your household. I say this to make the point that, us mothers, well we are used to this type of personal space intrusion — we expect it, are okay with it (somewhat, because what other choice do we have?) and have found ways to deal with it. But, for our children, well, having someone invade their space can really bother and upset them.
My daughter and I went to a local library story time this week and at such free events, you see a variety of people and family dynamics — newborns, toddlers, nannies, working moms who have the day off, SAHMS, grandparents, etc. You see some children being completely tended to and watched over, while others are given some semblance of independence in this perceived safe environment. There is no judgment here, from me, with regard to how you tackle story time with your child. But, when your child is making my child feel uncomfortable, well, then I may have something to say…or at least something to respectfully converse with you about.
The Psychology Dictionary, a professional reference, defines personal space as “a region of defended space surrounding someone”. It further notes that “most individuals have a certain regard for respecting the personal space of others.” I would have to state my contention that a lot of children, to no fault of their own, don’t truly understand personal space. Now this is acceptable for children under the age of 3, but I hold the opinion that for children older than three, they should have, at minimum, some preliminary knowledge and understanding of personal space boundaries.
An article by Gail Innis, titled, “Personal space: A social skill children need and adults can teach,” written for the Michigan State University Extension, states that “most young children want to touch everything and everyone as they learn about the world around them”. Makes sense, right? To use our innate five senses to make sense of this strange world and the variety of people in it. But, when your child’s desire to explore the world around them, includes their desire to explore my daughter beyond her comfort level, then there is an issue.
At the story time mentioned above, a child, probably the age of 4, was standing directly in front of my six-year old, staring at her. In addition to standing within a couple of inches of her, the little girl was non-stop talking to her, despite my daughter’s attempts to cue the little lady into the fact that she, herself, desired to pay attention to the story being read by the librarian. The little girl insisted on engaging with my oldest and touching my youngest, who was seated right next to my oldest. While I respectfully and kindly engaged the young child, hoping and assuming this may meet her need for some desired attention, I, at the same time, tried to make eye contact with her caretaker, hoping that she would notice the child’s intrusion into our family’s personal space. And, not to forget to mention the sight and sound infringement she was causing, ultimately affecting our enjoyment of story time. To be honest, in this situation, I think the little girl’s caretaker had no clue what was transpiring, as she was glued to her phone.
Listen, my children definitely are not perfect and they make a ton of mistakes and often, they themselves, definitely invade the personal space of others. Except, the people whose space they invade are usually mine and my husband’s, their aunts’ and uncles’ and their grandparents’. They rarely, if ever, invade the personal space of friends and strangers and I believe that is because my husband and myself have modeled and discussed with them what appropriate personal space boundaries are. Additionally, this is regularly reinforced for them at their school.
So, if your child needs some help understanding personal space boundaries, here are some tips of my own, as well as some of those suggested by Innis in her article:
- Explain personal space boundaries using the “fence” method.
- Explain person space boundaries using the “arm-length” method.
- Have each family member state what level of personal space suits their level of comfort.
- Talk about specific times and situations where personal space is no question (i.e., dinner time, privacy in the bathroom, when changing clothes, etc.).
- Encourage your child to ask for permission to invade someone’s space, like that of a friend (i.e. Are you okay if I stand next to you like this?).
- Do arts and crafts that teach personal space (i.e. double circles with boundary lines).
- Engage in exercises that teach personal space boundaries (i.e. have your child spin in a circle with arms outstretched).
And, if your child is, by chance, the child whose space is being invaded upon, encourage them to do the following:
- State verbally, to the space invader, their desire and need for more space.
- To understand that children, especially those under the age of three, do not really understand a request for personal space.
- To engage the child in an age-appropriately manner — the child may simply want your child’s attention and providing such may simply appease them enough to back off slightly.
- Reiterate to your child that unless they feel physically threatened, or like they are in danger, if the personal space invader is a child of similar age or younger, they should treat him/her with kindness, despite their frustration with the situation.
Listen, if your child is a close-talker or a social butterfly, do not feel ashamed — not in the least. Just understand that not all other children are the same way and some may feel uncomfortable with your child’s forward presence and close proximity.