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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.

Alone time for toddlers and older kids

Toddlers

Why they need it: During their second year, kids recognize that they are separate from others. So a toddler needs opportunities to practice her independence and be her own little person.

Keep in mind, though, that the world will still seem unmanageably huge to her  -- she'll want you to go away, just not too far. She may close the door but leave it open a crack. Or she may stay in the same room but carefully divide it into a mom-zone and a kid-zone.

How you'll know it: Of course, she won't be able to articulate her need for privacy, so don't be surprised if she resorts to pushing or slapping you, or throwing a tantrum. One way to help is to offer words that fit the situation: "It's not okay to push. Are you telling me you want to sit by yourself?"

Privacy issues also come up during potty training. Like my middle son, Henry, a child might sneak off to have a bowel movement privately, away from the bathroom. "This is just a toddler's way of controlling her body, and she wants to be alone to do it," says Smedley.

Same deal with forbidden foods. Toddlerhood is the beginning of the secret munchies  -- sneaking off to devour a handful of chips or a cookie. The first time Melissa Bienvenu gave her 18-month-old son, Matthew, an ice cream cone, he immediately ran behind the recliner to eat it. "I don't know if he wanted to be all alone with his treasure, or if he figured it was too good to be true so he'd better hide out and eat fast before somebody took it away!" says the Franklinton, Louisiana, mom.

Preschoolers

Why they need it: Now that they actually have a little independence, preschoolers can begin to manage some of the skills that come with it  -- like dressing themselves, pouring juice, or cutting with scissors  -- and they want to be alone while they're practicing them. "Preschoolers want to be like big kids, and it's harder to do that when Mom or Dad is hovering around wanting to help," says Smedley.

This is also the stage when kids' imaginations really take off. Pretending is how they work out conflicts, practice role-playing, and exert control in their lives  -- and they may get embarrassed if they know you're watching them playing pretend games.

How you'll know it: For many parents, the first sign that a child has truly grasped the concept of privacy comes when he closes the bathroom door. Where does this come from? Kids have seen their parents closing it all their lives-it's the most obvious act of privacy. They're not necessarily embarrassed about their bodies; they're just imitating grown-up behavior.

But don't be surprised if your preschooler orders you out of his room, too. Anna Gray Hart's 3-year-old daughter, Merrill, has taken to playing in the closet, carrying on elaborate conversations with a favorite stuffed animal. If Merrill catches her mom peeking, she says, "Go away, Mommy," and stops playing until she's alone again.

"At first, it hurt my feelings," Hart, who lives in Houston, admits. But it's nothing personal  -- apart from using such opportunities to teach your child the polite way to ask for privacy ("I'd like to be alone now, please"), the best thing to do is let him play by himself.

Children this age also adore secrets  -- the notion that they know something someone else doesn't. Three-year-old Nicolas Martorano of Boynton Beach, Florida, for instance, hides his favorite toy car every night before he goes to bed, and rescues it from its hiding place first thing every morning. At first, his mom, Sommer, thought he was keeping it safe from his baby brother, Joseph, 2, but Nicolas won't tell her or his dad where the car is, either.

School-age kids

Why they need it: By 5, kids are becoming much more social, and one of the ways they learn about the give-and-take of friendship is by hanging out with their peers as far away from adult interference as possible. Of course, even school-age children aren't old enough to be left unsupervised for very long. The trick for parents is to stay nearby and intervene only when safety's an issue.

How you'll know it: Your child will probably want to hide out with her friends in a secret place. When our two younger sons, Henry and Joe, were 7 and 5, for example, my husband built them a tree house. It's really more like a tree deck, but it has a trap door that allows them to lock out intruders. Many Saturday afternoons there are four or five little boys up in that tree house, all intently plotting out some game while I read in a lawn chair. I'm only a few yards away, but with that trap door closed and locked, I don't even exist as far as they're concerned.

It's important to respect your child's right to her own private thoughts, or to innocent secrets she wants to share only with friends. However, it's also important to make sure she knows that you're still the parent and privacy has its limits. "I always knock before going into my son's room, but under no circumstances can he bar me from entering," says Smedley.

At any age, you want your child to know it's safe to come to you with a secret that worries her. That means being careful not to overreact when she confides in you. If she feels awful about saying something mean to her brother, for example, or taking a cookie without asking, don't leap to apply punishment; instead, emphasize how proud you are of her honesty and help her figure out a way to make amends. You'll be laying the groundwork, while your child's private thoughts are still sweet and uncomplicated, for keeping the lines of communication open later on, when her secrets may be anything but.

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