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A Child's Need for Privacy

For parents, it can be a real shock. That adoring infant who couldn't take his eyes off you, who wept like the world was ending if you stepped into another room, is suddenly one day holding up his hand like a tiny police officer and barking, "You go away now. I need some pwivacy in here!"

All kids need some level of time alone, starting around the middle of their second year. But how a child expresses that need varies, says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Children are passionate imitators, and many of them mimic their parents' attitudes.

Individual temperament plays a big role, too, as Smedley learned with her own kids: "I'm not an excessively private person, and neither is my son, who's nine and has only just started to like taking showers with the door closed. But my five-year-old is extremely self-conscious. At the pool, she wants to change in a private room, even when the other girls are out in the open."

Despite the differences, there are some general guidelines about how a sense of privacy develops in kids. What you can expect at each age:

Babies

Why they need it: For a baby, alone time is really downtime  -- a chance to rest from human interaction and stimulation. Some babies can amuse themselves for as long as 20 minutes, but all babies should get a break for at least a few minutes every day.

When Alexis Richardson's son Bolden, now 3, was an infant, she'd put him in a bouncy seat facing a big window in their living room. "Just outside is a very big oak tree teeming with squirrels, birds, lizards, and other animals," says the Crystal River, Florida, mom. "He loved to watch what was going on in there."

Spending some quiet time also helps a baby learn to entertain himself. One way to encourage this: Don't rush to respond to the very first peep your baby makes when he wakes up. Learning to play with his fingers and toes or practice his cooing will help him calm and soothe himself when he's overstimulated, says Hugh Bases, M.D., developmental pediatrician at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

How you'll know it: Right in the middle of a stimulating game like peekaboo, he may break eye contact, turn his head, or get fussy. That's his way of telling you he's getting overstimulated and needs to be by himself to regroup.

Now that her youngest child is in kindergarten, contributing editor Margaret Renkl is happy she can get a moment to herself every once in a while.

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