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Appropriate Boundaries with Kids

One of the best ways to help young people grow up to make healthy choices is for them to have caring adults in their lives who model healthy lifestyles and choices.  And yet, recent media reports1 suggest that some adults, especially men, are completely avoiding kids because they are worried about being perceived as interested in children for the wrong reasons or falsely accused of inappropriate behavior with kids. 

Unfortunately, when adults avoid kids, fewer kids have adult role models and adults miss out on knowing they are helping kids grow into successful adults. 

To protect yourself and to protect the kids you care about, it is important to know and demonstrate appropriate boundaries.  These guidelines are for situations where you are intentionally developing a relationship with a child for the purpose of providing adult support.  Use these tips to protect yourself while being a significant adult to a child. 

Suggestions for Appropriate Boundaries:

  1. It is your responsibility to set and respect boundaries.  If a child attempts to involve you in inappropriate behavior, you are responsible for redirecting the behavior. 
  2. Talk with the significant adults in the child’s life (parents, guardians, grandparents, older siblings, etc.)  Tell them you are interested in becoming a significant adult in the child’s life.  Ask their permission before initiating contact with the child.  Keep them informed and involved as you spend time with their child. Agree together on general boundaries for your relationship with the child.  When situations come up that weren’t anticipated in your boundaries discussion, address them and add them to your list of boundaries.  Remember, you are responsible for setting and respecting boundaries.  Sometimes, adults in the child’s life will suggest you take them overnight, on weekends, etc.  Do not agree to anything with which you are not comfortable.
  3. To reduce the risk of accusations of inappropriate conduct, avoid spending time alone with a child in a situation where others are not present or cannot hear or see you.  Never allow touching (such as bandaging a cut, helping a child up a stair, etc.) to occur if you are out of visibility of others.  Avoid potentially risky situations (like giving a child a ride in your car), by inviting others to join you.  For example, if you are driving to an amusement park, invite others to join you.  Once at the park, you can split up for some one on one time while remaining in view of others.
  4. Although touching is an important human need, touching a child or young person can be risky and/or misconstrued.  People have varying levels of comfort with touching.  Watch for signs a child is uncomfortable with touch and adjust accordingly.  As children’s bodies begin to change, they can become very sensitive to both touch and comments or remarks.  Err on the side of caution.  Children can misinterpret touches and be sensitive to remarks about clothing and physical appearance.

Examples of appropriate, positive interactions:

  • Praise
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Pats on the back or shoulder
  • High fives
  • Brief, youth initiated hugs

Examples of inappropriate or harmful interactions to avoid:

  • Asking a child to touch you (give you a back rub, hug, etc.)
  • Sexually provocative or degrading comments
  • Comments or jokes with suggestive or double entendre overtones
  • Patting the buttocks
  • Spanking, slapping, or hitting a child
  • Behavior or language that is threatening or demeaning
  • Intrusive questions, comments, or observations, verbally or through notes
  • Unwanted staring or watching
  • Inappropriate affectionate contact that could be misunderstood or perceived as intimate or sexual in nature including kissing, holding hands, patting knees, putting your hands on their shoulders, giving back rubs, allowing a child to sit on your lap, etc. 
  • Discussing personal sexual information
  • Teasing or comments about physical appearance
  • Snapping bra straps
  • Discussing sexually explicit topics, including tasteless jokes, or suggestive song lyrics

All kids need safe, caring adults who intentionally create opportunities to get to know kids and show them that they matter. By following these simple guidelines, you can be safe while creating this safe relationship. 

1 Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope with Being Cast as Predators by Jeffrey Zaslow, The Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2007.