Bodily Autonomy Starts at Home

Amanda Hayes Politics & Society Leave a Comment

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

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.

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