Teach Your Kids About Bodily Autonomy (Before It’s Too Late)
As parents, the concept of teaching a toddler bodily autonomy might seem silly at first. At first, they have no control over their own bodies, so we take charge. Once they begin talking, however, one of our most important jobs is to teach them their words have power.
By teaching kids that their body is their own to control and that they have the right to say no even to adults, we can empower our kids in more ways than one.
What Is Bodily Autonomy?
Bodily autonomy is defined as the power a person has over their own body. In other words, the power we all have to define what physical acts we're OK with. Even children have bodily autonomy, and teaching them helps them understand the concept of consent.
It's never too early to start laying out these big ideas. They apply everywhere, from the playground, to safe relationships with the adults in their lives, to their very first relationships.
Why It's Controversial
Who didn't hear, "Go give your aunt a hug" as a kid? In some families, a child refusing physical affection feels like an insult. Bodily autonomy means that kids have a say about their own personal space, even among family members, and that can hurt some feelings.
Some parents also worry that giving kids too much agency is a mistake. After all, you have to make them do some things, right? Anyone who's tried to get a screaming toddler to put on a pair of shoes knows that giving kids complete control over their bodies isn't always an option.
Respecting your child's bodily autonomy, however, doesn't have to mean being a pushover. It means being more mindful about the way we discipline our kids. Even from the toddler stage, how much agency we give our kids influences their view of themselves and how they relate to others.
If they don't have the right to say "stop, I don't like that!" at home, why would they expect to have that right anywhere else?
Teaching Bodily Autonomy Isn't Mean. It's Essential.
Some family members may take it personally if your child rejects a hug or kiss. If they do, consider sharing the following:
- Some kids have touch sensitivities or sensory processing differences that make physical touch stressful rather than comforting.
- Allowing kids to say no to unwanted touch teaches them that their wants and needs deserve respect. At the same time, it helps them learn to respect the boundaries of others.
- Teaching bodily autonomy helps prevent childhood sexual abuse. As many as one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. By teaching kids they have the right to say no to unwanted touch, even from adults they trust, they're more likely to speak up if someone in their life crosses a line.
- In 91 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the child and their family knows and trusts. Allowing your child to set boundaries with family members isn't personal. It's protective.
How to Start the Conversation
It's never too early to start talking about autonomy and consent, and these conversations should evolve as your child grows. You can start by giving examples from real life, or use books, movies and current events to get the conversation going.
Before you do, prep by planning what message you want to send and how much information is appropriate for their stage of development.
Use age appropriate language.
Consent and autonomy are big words for preschoolers. Try using words like space, body, and touch to simplify these big concepts for young kids.
Take the taboo out of anatomical terms.
If you're a grown adult who's uncomfortable saying the word vagina, now is the time to get over it. Teaching kids the correct terms for all their body parts removes any sense of embarrassment or shame. It also makes them more comfortable speaking up if they ever do need to disclose abuse.
Discuss what kind of touch is OK, and what's not.
Some kind of touch is OK, and kids should learn early on who is allowed to see or touch their body and for which reasons. For example, a teacher helping them tie their shoe or offering a hug after they scrape their knee is OK. A doctor giving a checkup with mom or dad in the room is OK.
Someone forcing them into a hug or kiss, or asking to see their private parts is not. These lines are obvious to adults, but kids are trusting. They'll only know what kind of touch is not OK if we talk to them about it.
Establish a safety network.
Help kids define five grownups they trust, including some outside the family, who they can talk to if someone ever makes them feel uncomfortable or confused.
Leading by Example Is Part of Empowering Your Kids
Practicing what you preach is one of the biggest challenges of parenting. At home, offer concrete examples of giving and receiving consent. For example:
- If they ask you to stop tickling them, stop immediately. It doesn't matter if they're laughing. No means no, even with mom and dad.
- Practice saying no politely. If someone goes in for a hug that they're not comfortable with, they can simply say, "I don't want a hug, actually. You can give me a high five though!" Or something similar.
- Support your child's agency as much as possible. Instead of saying, "Put on your pajamas now or I'll have to help you," try, "Would you like to put on your pajamas now, or read one story first and then put them on?" This gives them a sense of control over their own actions without letting them get out of doing something they need to.
- Teach them to ask for permission before touching siblings and friends. Everyone has bodily autonomy, and learning to ask before giving hugs or starting a tickle fight is an easy place to start practicing consent.
For a kid-friendly conversation starter, try sharing the video below with your kids. It breaks consent down in terms they can understand. For a more in-depth look at why teaching bodily autonomy is so important, check out the TEDx Talk of Monica Rivera, a professor who teaches violence prevention and women's studies at Colorado State University.