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Kids and Privacy

Morgan Dickerson, 3, likes to plant big, wet smooches on his mom. But not all the time: Some days, he squirms away and runs off, shouting, "No kisses!"

"When he first did it, I was hurt. But I guess we all need our personal space," says Karle Dickerson, of Pasadena, California. It's true. Morgan's protests are just a 3-year-old's way of saying, "Mom, I'd like a little privacy, please."

As much as your child wants to be close to you, it's normal—innate, in fact  -- for him to also need some physical and emotional distance. (Just as you do sometimes!) "Private time allows children to create a separate identity from their parents, which in turn makes them more independent, self-reliant, and confident in their abilities," says Diane Ross Glazer, Ph.D., a child-development expert in Santa Monica, California.

Some kids like their privacy more than others. For instance, those who adapt slowly to new situations usually don't mind being alone as much as their easygoing peers. Boys, too, tend to keep to themselves more than girls  -- but that could be because parents don't expect their sons to open up as much, and so they don't.

All kids need privacy at times, though, and determining how much and what kind can depend on your child's age:

Babies: Solo Moments

At the start, a baby is almost completely focused on Mom and Dad. But by around 4 months, her interest expands beyond you  -- and for the first time, she's comfortable turning her attention to herself and her surroundings.

If your baby is playing alone (shaking a rattle, banging a wooden spoon on the floor), avoid the temptation to rush in and coo, tickle, or talk to her. She's perfectly happy. Plus, being by herself is good for her. "She's discovering she can make interesting things happen on her own," says Rebecca Eder, Ph.D., former director of psychology at the St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Don't feel guilty about using these times to relax or do chores. It's easy to feel as if you ought to give your baby constant attention, but remember: She feels secure enough to turn away from you because she knows she's loved.

Toddlers: Indecision Reigns

One minute, your toddler's gleefully running halfway across the park, and the next, he's bursting into tears when he turns around and can't instantly find you. As toddlers experiment with separation, they're coming to learn what it feels like to be alone  -- and it can be scary.

Although kids this age don't understand exactly what it is, they do want some privacy and have no qualms letting you know. While your toddler's frequent (okay, constant) use of "No!" is sometimes rebellion, pure and simple, other times, he's serious: He wants to do it himself without your butting in. So leave him alone if he asks you to. He's not only mastering a new task, he's also learning how to establish boundaries.

In other cases, you might be the one to encourage a little quiet time. "Your child may no longer need as much naptime, but he can still use the chance to relax and recharge his batteries," says Neal Kaufman, M.D., director of primary-care pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles. "Plus, being alone gives him the opportunity to learn how to entertain himself, which is an important skill for later in life." So encourage him to play on his own during what used to be his naptime. He may resist a little at first, since kids this age hate to think they could be missing out on something, but stay nearby, doing something else, and he'll be fine.

When it comes to learning to use the toilet, toddlers need a funny combination of privacy and attention. By age 2 1/2 or 3, kids pick up on the idea that wetting their diaper is a private thing, so they'll go into a corner to do it. But once you actually start potty training, any desire for privacy goes right out the window. Besides needing help to pull down their pants and adjust the potty seat, kids like their parents to witness and celebrate any success ("Look what I made, Mom!"). Go ahead and play along ("Wow, that really is something!").


Preschoolers: On Their Own

When her imagination kicks into high gear at age 3 or 4, your preschooler can get so wrapped up in her dolls or stuffed animals that she hardly notices you're in the room.

When she's playing with a friend, she may realize you're there  -- but not want you to be. The kids may intentionally go off to another part of the room or even bluntly order you to go away. While you obviously can't leave preschoolers unsupervised, you can stay in the background while they play nearby.

It's not just physical distance your child wants now, either. At 4, kids start to understand that their thoughts are private. "Children find this incredibly empowering," says Glazer. "They realize they can keep things to themselves."

A kid who once spilled every bean may now say, "It's a secret" when you ask something as innocuous as "What did you do at school today?" You needn't press for an answer. She's just having fun testing out her new powers of concealment. So say something like "Okay, but if you want to tell me later, I'll still want to know."

If she seems upset, though, and you suspect she's hiding a problem, pry a little. If she still won't tell you, talk to her teacher to find out what might be going on.

The dawning of physical modesty is normal at this stage too. When my son Cole was 3, he'd rip off his bathing suit at the beach without a thought. But by 4 ¿¿¿, he started insisting I cover him up with a towel when he needed to change, anxiously asking, "Can anyone see?"

By now, most children have learned about private parts, and, as a result, many don't want to be caught in the buff  -- especially by someone of the opposite sex. So be patient if your daughter refuses to put on her pajamas with her brother in the next room. (On the other hand, don't expect consistency. One day, your child will call for privacy; the next, she'll prance around nude.)

And because most 4-year-olds have mastered the potty, they don't want a crowd in the bathroom anymore. Twins Matthew and John Drinkwater of Greenport, New York, started saying to their parents, "Could you close the door so I can have my privacy?" when they were 3¿¿¿. Their mom, Angela, isn't sure where they picked up the word "privacy," but she dutifully shuts the door.


Schoolkids: Keep Out

My daughter, Libby, didn't just start keeping a diary when she was in first grade  -- she wound up with five of them. As older children build an increasingly complicated inner world of thoughts and feelings, they find they want to keep more of it to themselves.

Jessica Lerner, 9, of Bethesda, Maryland, even gets upset if her mom, Claire, tries to enter her room to drop off laundry. She yells, "Leave it at the door!" She's also posted a sign: "Knock Before Entering." Lerner obliges, especially since Jessica once tried to "fine" her $20 for not knocking.

If you don't feel comfortable allowing your child to leave his door closed, tell him that you won't come in, but you do want the door open a crack so you can look in now and then to make sure he's safe.

Whereas your child's life used to be pretty much an open book, now he'll get embarrassed if you reveal certain facts about him to other people. The tricky part? What's off-limits usually follows inexplicable kid logic. Recently, when Libby overheard me tell a friend she got an A on her spelling test, Libby shouted, "Don't tell!" Turns out she thought my proud-mom comment made her sound conceited. Who knew? When you're lucky enough to get advance warning, keep silent even if you don't get why it matters so much right then.

This "don't tell" policy also extends to bodies and bodily functions. Your child is liable to cringe if you ask in front of his friends, "Do you need to use the bathroom?" Don't you know? Public announcements like that are for babies!

Another related change: Some 6- and 7-year-olds may want to bathe or shower alone, even though they'll need your help adjusting the water temperature so they don't burn themselves. And, of course, you'll want to check in on them. Giving your kids the space they want can be good for you too. The other day, for instance, I was in the bathroom when Libby started to barge in. "Hey, you like to be in here alone," I told her. "Well, so do I!" I could practically hear the gears in her brain working as she paused, let go of the door handle, and said, "Sure, Mom." I can't guarantee she won't forget and do it again, but at least I had my space for a few minutes.


Alison Bell, a mom of three, writes frequently for Parenting.