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Personal Space & Preschoolers

Personal Space & Preschoolers

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have loved your advice column for a long time. I’ve never had to actually ask a question because every time I have an issue I can look back and find it has been answered already. Not only by your clear, caring, “just calm down” self but also by the hugely respectful and resourceful commenters. Thank you one and all!

But. Now I have a question. More easily explained with back story:

I have boys, the oldest of which is 4. Recently he was climbing on me and I allowed it for a while then asked him to stop. He kept doing it and when I firmly said no he petulantly replied “I will do it anyway because I want to!” and my internal alarm bells started ringing. Later, at a play date, a friend of his (a girl, though it doesn’t really matter) didn’t want to hug him and told him to stop and he did it anyway, but almost aggressively. Once I started noticing it I noticed it often, though it might just be my worry mountaining some mole hills.

I know he is 4 and 4 year olds are stubborn and contradictory. But is it too early to lay the foundations of physical boundaries as a 100% non-negotiable “no means no” area? I’m a firm believer that we need to teach the boys to respect rather than teach the girls to be wary. The trouble is that he can be so stubborn that at times we DO have to physically overpower him. We never smack or spank but things like pulling him out from under his friend’s bed when it is a long time past time to go or strapping him in to his brother’s stroller as a time out if he’s not being safe around roads etc. During which he’s, of course, screaming ‘no.’

So I’m stuck! How do I explain the seriousness of not forcing physical contact when it seems unavoidable that I force it on him from time to time?? Is four too young to understand? Am I over thinking the whole thing?!

Please help!

Thank you,

“Just calm down.”

Ha ha and LOL, just kidding, but for real: RELAX. This is so utterly typical of 4 year olds, all across the gender spectrum.

My 4 year old ball of stubborn is currently coming home from preschool every day with stories about a 4 year old girl who repeatedly and insistently tries to kiss him. He says no, she just tries harder because it’s like a game to her, and because she’s 4 and still has a lot to learn about physical boundaries, and just generally interacting with other human beings who have their own preferences and ideas. As does my kid! As does every wiggly pokey climb-y 4 year old in the class.

That’s NOT to say that I just shrug and use the age as an excuse for not intervening when unwanted physical contact is happening, but this is no more “serious” of an issue than say, grabbing a toy out of someone’s hands because he doesn’t want to share. And it’s definitely not a gendered issue yet — everybody has the right to their personal space, boys AND girls, and you simply reinforce that concept consistently across the board.

So how do reinforce that concept? I’m a big fan of using books at this age, and a super-quick Amazon search yields a couple promising titles aimed at preschoolers that you might want to check out: Personal Space Camp and Hands Off Harry. Looking at the “Frequently Bought Together” feature shows even more options (also for the “I will do it anyway because I WANT to!” thing), which is not surprising. And hopefully is a bit reassuring to you that you are raising a typical preschooler.

Find a book you like and start reading it a couple times a week. (When we’re trying to use a book to aid with a specific issue, we read two books — he picks one and I pick the other.) Then the next time you catch him invading someone’s space after they’ve said to stop, you quickly intervene (and yes, it’s okay to gently but physically remove him from the other person’s space) and if you can, use the same phrasing from the book.

Do this every time — boy, girl, child, adult, animals too!! — and eventually the dots will connect and ta-da! You’ve successfully taught a human being how to human. Bonus: You’ve also taught him that HE has the right to his physical space, and empowered him with the words to use if someone is disrespecting that or making him feel unsafe/uncomfortable.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • MR

    November 2, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Here’s the difference: “I will not let you harm yourself or others.” So, he’s being unsafe near a road and needs to be forcibly restrained to prevent hurting himself – that’s not you taking control of his body, that’s you not allowing him to hurt himself. You having to pull him out from under his friend’s bed, that is you teaching him boundaries. That’s why when parents discuss appropriate touching, you also have to caveat that there are ways of touching each other that may seem inappropriate, but aren’t. Like when a doctor has to do an exam, as long as mom or dad is there and tells you it is ok. So, when he tries to hug his friend, and s/he says no, grab him back and say, “S/he said no. It is only ok if it is fun for BOTH people.” As parents, we will naturally have to overstep our children’s personal space at times. There are times my daughter throws such a fit that the only way I can keep her and myself safe is to bear hug her so she can’t hit/kick me. (She’s 7.) This doesn’t happen often, and usually only happens if she is extremely overtired, but she literally cannot control herself at that point until she exhausts that burst of energy, and she will hurt herself or whomever is around her if she is not restrained. I hug her tight and coo to her softly and firmly remind her that I will not let her hurt herself or others. Another good one is, “I am not afraid of your anger.” And, be honest with him. In a few years if he says, “why is ok for you to hold on to me like that, when I can’t do that to my friends?”, then explain that it is because you are his mother. And as his mother, it is your job to teach him the rules, and that means you sometimes have to do things with him that you wouldn’t with others – like cut up his food, or wipe his nose, or restrain him from hurting himself. As long as all of this is done with love and in an appropriate way, he’ll understand because you aren’t abusing the power.

  • Dana

    November 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I have no answers, but my 3yo son does the same thing and it drives us crazy.  I definitely don’t think it is gendered, but do think this is them not understanding personal space and personal boundaries.  If THEY are enjoying it, they don’t get why there might still be a problem.

    We do repeat “If everyone isn’t enjoying it, then it isn’t a fun game” a lot and mostly hope he will grow out of it eventually.

  • Brecka

    November 2, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    On a similar vein, we’ve found a Daniel Tiger episode Find a Way to Play, to be helpful. Basically it goes over that if someone isn’t enjoying the way you are playing then it’s time to figure out what both kids would enjoy. I sing this song to my 3 yo many times a day as she plays with her 11mo sister (who does not want to be a doll, no not at all, or a puppy)

  • Amy

    November 2, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    I have said “no means no” to my kids since they were old enough to walk. I say it when they’re playing with someone and they go in for unwanted physical contact, I say it when we’re at the store and they ask me for something over and over and over, and I say it when their creepy great-great-aunt Myrtle is coming in for a big wet smooch, and they hide behind my legs.  Sorry aunt Myrtle, no means no.

    I also tell my kids, who are now 10, 8, and almost 5, “If someone stops having fun, you stop playing.”  If they’re wrestling, someone gets scared, and that kid cries?  Wrestle time is over, find something else to do.  

    I believe that it is never too soon to teach kids that “no means no.”

    My son, the nearly-5 year old, recently had a talking to at school because he was hugging the entire class goodbye, even though some of them stopped wanting hugs after the 3rd or 4th day.  I had to tell him, “no means no,” even though I can see that he is just trying to be sweet and inclusive and it broke my heart a little that some little snot was rejecting his pure, unselfish love.  So, I told him, “Ask your friends if they want a hug first, and if they say no, just save that hug for me.  I will always take all of your hugs.”

    If you wait until they’re 15 to tell them “no means no,” they may not remember when it counts.