Parents exercise a lot of control over their children, and rightfully so. They are solely responsible for ensuring their child grows up safe, healthy and as a functioning member of society. But some forms of control are unnecessary or even harmful. Demanding complete, unquestioning obedience harms their curiosity; control over their friends, interests and interactions fuels resentment and opposition, but there is another form of control parents exercise that they may not think is harmful, and that is control over their bodies.
There are many definitions of bodily autonomy, but my personal favorite is one coined by Hannah Goff: “It’s generally considered a human right. Bodily autonomy means a person has control over who or what uses their body, for what, and for how long. It’s why you can’t be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs. Even if you are dead. Even if you’d save or improve 20 lives. It’s why someone can’t touch you, have sex with you, or use your body in any way without your continuous consent.”
This can be considered a problem for parents, because being responsible for their children’s bodies is an extension of being responsible for the child. We must ensure they are fed, clean, healthy and their bodies are functioning at the highest level. There are many things under this umbrella that parents need to control to maintain these requirements. That said, no matter how young your child is, bodily autonomy is something you can teach them without compromising any of your parental requirements.
As a parent, I would imagine we all want our children to have ultimate control over their bodies. We want them to be responsible for the things we do for them right now later in life. We don’t want them to be physically taken advantage of or unable to take care of or defend themselves if they are being violated physically. Giving kids control of their bodies at a young age will build a foundation for them creating personal boundaries later in life.
The first can start for even children as young as infants. It may sound silly to you, but simply acknowledging your baby and telling them when you’re about to pick them up, hold them or change their diaper is a great way to get started. Everyone talks to their babies all the time anyway; it shows love and creates a bond between parent and child. While it may not seem like a big deal if we tell our babies when we are picking them up, it certainly does make a difference as you try to evolve their bodily autonomy later in life.
As for older babies or toddlers, it is still important for you to communicate what you are doing that has anything to do with their bodies. “I am going to change your diaper now.” Or even more importantly, ask them if you can check their diaper if you suspect they need a change. It is very common for a parent to exclaim “You stink! You need a diaper change!” and subsequently yank their pants and diaper open to check if they were correct. Would you ever do this to an elderly you care for? Of course not, it’s fraught with indignity and disrespect. Why is it okay to do it to our children? You may think they are too young to experience shame as toddlers, but this isn’t true, and it is not setting a good precedent for them later on.
It’s also important that no matter how old they are, you don’t discuss or publicly exclaim things that would be considered personal if it were about you. Potty accidents are a great example of this. The same can be said about having discussions about their bodies with friends or family members where the child can hear you. You may think that kids can’t feel shame or embarrassment as toddlers and young children, but they do, and you are putting all their business on display. Imagine if after you left the bathroom at a friend’s house, your spouse or friend who went in after you made a comment about the state it was left in. Awkward.
This is one of my most important points: Respect their wishes on physical contact with others, particularly close friends and family members. It is never appropriate for you to force your child to physically interact with someone. This includes hugging or kissing grandma and grandpa, sitting on someone’s lap or being alone with them in general. If your child expresses to you that they don’t want to give auntie a hug or kiss grandma goodbye, DO NOT force them. Most parents force these things because they think there is no legitimate reason for their child to feel this way, and they don’t want to hurt the family member’s feelings. I can’t stress this enough. It is not okay for you to force your child to have physical contact with someone if they don’t want to. No matter how harmless it seems to you, they have a reason for being uncomfortable, and you need to respect it. How do you expect them to say no to unwanted physical contact later in life if you ignore their feelings about it while they’re growing up? How can you expect your daughter or son to say no to someone who is crossing their personal boundaries when they’re adolescents or adults, if the person they trust most in the world doesn’t respect? Think about how children perceive things. If their concerns are written off as insignificant, how strong will they be in their convictions later in their life? This is especially important for parents of girls. Think about the respect you want her to have for her body and to feel comfortable saying NO.
Furthermore, if your child is uncomfortable being alone with anyone in your extended family or circle of friends, LISTEN to them! This could indicate that there is a serious trust issue here and they should not ever be forced to be around them or scolded for their feelings. Talk to them about it openly and without judgment. If your family and friends respect you, then you should be able to communicate that your child is not comfortable with it, and they should respect that. If they don’t, consider whether or not you want this person around your children in the first place.
Now, for older kids, allow them privacy. Don’t force an open door policy in your home. Having no secrets or privacy allowed between family members is unhealthy. Kids should feel that they are free to have moments only shared with themselves, and this can include having discussions with themselves or their toys, writing in a diary or even exploring their own bodies. I used to love making up songs and singing alone in my room. It was absolutely humiliating when one of my parents came in and acknowledged it. I know the same went for my brother when he played with his action figures and made explosion noises and created his own imaginary battle scenes. When he was little, it really embarrassed him when we commented on it.
Older kids also need to be given responsibility over their bodies, such as when they eat or sleep. Yes, it’s vital that as parents we ensure they are eating and sleeping enough, but every meal and bedtime does not need to be micromanaged.
If they stay up too late one night and are exhausted the next day at school, that is a terrific lesson about the cause and effect of not getting enough sleep. The same goes for kids who don’t want to eat a particular meal. Yes, it’s irritating when they refuse something you cooked, but my slogan is “Healthy meals, no alternatives.” This doesn’t mean you let them starve, but they should be able to refuse a meal every once in a while.
Make sure you give body parts their real names. It is so important that we refer to their anatomical or reproductive parts correctly. This opens the dialogue and shows them that they should be comfortable communicating with you about these parts, and more importantly, that they are not something to be ashamed of or hushed up. These are not words that are inappropriate for kids to say. Giving their body parts cutes nicknames just fuels a discomfort and taboo with the parts themselves. That is the last thing we want as parents. Nothing about our bodies should make us ashamed.
Setting the foundation for understanding their bodies is going to help them make the right decisions later on. Showing them that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and allowing them to be in control of them teaches how to respect themselves and others.