One of the cornerstones of respectful parenting is a child’s right to bodily autonomy. Like most of the choices I have made for my children, bodily autonomy is not something I really considered before becoming a mother. It just sort of sneaked up on me, and the vital importance of it took hold and refused to let go.
As many of us parents do, I had expected to just sort of wing it when it came to raising my kids. Before becoming a parent, I figured I would have a mixture of instinct and the experience of how my parents raised me to draw from as I navigated my new reality as a mother. As my husband used to like to say, the first year as a parent, your main goal is keeping your baby alive. So it wasn’t until my first baby was born that I started to realize that parenting choices actually matter, even for newborns. I learned pretty early on that my instincts as a mom didn’t exactly line up with much of what I heard and saw other parents doing.
My choices for my children are often unpopular. This is what led me to do some research into parenting styles, to see if there were others out there with similar instincts. I soon found that many others shared my views on parenting. Attachment parenting, gentle parenting, positive parenting, respectful parenting. There are many names for these similar styles of parenting, and practices that I draw from each.
One thing I found is that, although my intentions are definitely in line with my beliefs on how I want to raise my children, I often fall short. Respectful parenting takes patience and intention. It takes practice, especially if you don’t have a lot of support, or if it differs greatly from how you were raised.
Today I want to talk about the importance of respecting your child’s bodily autonomy. This is one of those things where, in theory I completely agree, but in practice I often don’t get a lot of support. It takes some grit to hold your ground and stand up for the rights of your children, especially when it comes to their right to govern their own bodies. Here are some ways that you can support your child’s bodily autonomy, and how to respond to those who don’t support your efforts.
Don’t Force Your Child to Show Affection
When I was growing up, I was always being told who to hug or kiss hello or goodbye. Even though my parents meant well, I absolutely hated it. I can only imagine how wonderful it would have felt if I had been allowed to just say “no” whenever I didn’t want to hug someone. This was an easy one for me as a parent. I knew right away that I would never make my children show affection to anyone.
This can be hard for parents, especially when loving grandparents feel slighted by getting the cold shoulder. But that is exactly when it’s most important to support your kids! Imagine what we are teaching our children if we force them to give someone a hug or kiss that they don’t want to in order to make that person feel better. Do we really want to send the message that what other people want them to do with their bodies matters more than what they want? What happens when we aren’t around to intervene?
In my family, it’s simple. I never, ever, EVER suggest to my kids that they should hug, kiss, high five, or touch another person in any way. If a grandparent or friend is leaving, I don’t prompt my children to do anything. I say goodbye in the way that is natural and comfortable for myself and the other person, and I allow my children to do the same.
Since I never attempt to prompt my children to hug, kiss, etc., it isn’t often that a family member or friend will ask for a sign of affection from my children, which is great! However, when it does happen, I simply turn to my child and say “you don’t have to.” Its always for them to decide. This may come off as rude to some, and that’s really unfortunate. As a society, I hope we can break this pattern of expecting children to show affection to others if they don’t want to.
You can start practicing this when your children are still babies. Even though they can’t give verbal consent, you will start to notice when they are uncomfortable around certain people, especially as they start to develop separation anxiety. I never pass my babies off to someone to hold if I sense the baby doesn’t want to be held by that person. If someone else is holding my baby and they start to cry or squirm, I immediately step in and take them back.
I know many parents are just trying to be polite. It’s hard to risk insulting family and friends, especially those of older generations who may equate respect with being affectionate with your elders. Still, you must support your child. As a parent, your child’s right to their own bodies has to be more important than the risk of offending anyone. You can politely explain that your child has the right to decide just as every person should. If you feel like it, you can even give that relative a hug or a kiss yourself instead (but you don’t have to either!)
Teach Your Child About Their Body
This means explaining what all the parts of their body are for, including (in an age appropriate way) their genitals. There is nothing shameful or inappropriate about calling a penis a penis and a vagina a vagina. The more you say these names out loud, the easier it will become. If my child pointed to a foot and asked me “what’s that?” I’d say “a foot.” When asked about genitalia, it’s important to answer just as simply.
There are many reasons why it’s so important to do this. Supporting your child’s bodily autonomy means helping them to be comfortable in their own skin. Removing any shame regarding genitals and human sexuality allows children to be more confident and comfortable in their own bodies, and enables them to tell the difference when something doesn’t feel right. They need to be able to trust their own instincts.
When kids know there is nothing shameful about themselves, they are less likely to be sexually abused. Think about it – sexual predators use shame and fear to their advantage. A child who is comfortable with their body and not ashamed of any part of it is much more likely to be able to talk about anything that doesn’t feel right.
Here is a really great article about this if you would like to know more about this very important concept:
Don’t Force Children to Eat
Children are figuring out so much about themselves and their bodies as they grow. One thing they are learning is what it’s like to feel hungry and what it’s like to feel full. This is such an important lesson – so many adults struggle with eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes about food. Besides, if we are to support our children’s right to govern their own bodies, how can we decide for them how much or little they should eat?
This doesn’t mean we allow them to starve, or stuff themselves to the point of being sick. Being supportive requires us, as parents, to be teachers. Ask questions, talk to your kids about what it feels like when they are hungry or full. Offer a variety of foods. Don’t make your kids eat things they don’t like. Don’t force them to try something if they don’t want to.
As an adult, you likely have the freedom to choose whatever you want to eat for most meals. While your kids may not be able to do the grocery shopping and prepare their own meals, they still deserve the right to choose for themselves. This doesn’t mean you have to prepare different meals for each family member. But it does mean not serving something that you know they hate and expecting them to eat it. It also means involving them in the decision making. Ask them what they might like to add to the grocery list, or what meals and snacks they most enjoy. As they grow, they can even start helping in the kitchen.
In my house, I will never tell my children to eat “just one more bite” of anything. If my daughter says she’s full, that’s all I need to hear. This doesn’t mean I like wasting food. To the degree that it makes sense to do so, I will save what’s left of her meal or snack and offer it again later when she says she is hungry. And if she doesn’t want it then, that’s ok too. How many of us don’t want to eat the same thing twice in a row? Most of the time she does want to finish whatever she didn’t eat before. Usually she was actually enjoying it and just stopped because she had enough.
This also means we don’t restrict snacking. When my daughter is hungry, she eats. I don’t worry about her “spoiling her dinner.” A lot of times dinner isn’t ready and I’m too hungry to wait, so I eat something. Why can’t kids be allowed the same freedom to choose for themselves?
My oldest is six now, and it amazes me to see the healthy relationship she is already developing with food. I like to think at least some of that is due to the freedom that she has to choose for herself when she is hungry or full, and what she would like to eat. Grandparents bring her candy and treats and she never feels the need to immediately devour them. Usually they get stale before she even wants to try them. She knows when she’s hungry, she knows when she’s had enough, and she knows which foods are good for our bodies and which are not as good. She also knows there are no “off limits” foods. Even though I buy pretty much healthy foods, we have some unhealthy things too.
This is why I believe that part of supporting bodily autonomy for our children means teaching them to have a healthy relationship with food, and allowing them to learn about and listen to their body’s hunger cues, without adults trying to exert control over when or how much they eat.
Let Your Children Decide How They Want to Look
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s really fun dressing babies. There are so many adorable outfits for babies, and choosing them each day for my own babies is such a joy. Obviously as babies they are much too small to be able to tell me if they like what I’ve chosen or not. But even small babies can give us some clue as to how we should dress them. There is no need to try to force a crying baby into an uncomfortable outfit just to get a certain picture. With so many cute and more comfortable choices, I skip putting my babies in anything that looks like it might be uncomfortable for them.
As kids get old enough to start showing preferences for what they wear, it’s easy to support their autonomy. Allow them to choose when you are buying them new clothes, and don’t try to steer them in one direction or another. Kids are trying new things all the time as they learn about their identity. We went through phases where our oldest daughter only wanted to wear frilly dresses, and phases where she only wanted to wear shorts and t-shirts. So when she outgrows her clothes and it’s time to go shopping for new ones, I let her decide (within budget of course).
When she gets dressed each day, she chooses what to wear. We are home a lot these days, so many times it’s been just pajamas. When we go out there are obviously certain rules, but they are the same rules that apply to adults. She is free to be herself and have her own sense of style, but obviously she won’t be wearing a bathing suit to the supermarket, but neither can I!
This is even more important when it applies to something that isn’t as easily changed as clothes. Hair is a big one. My daughter loves having long hair. She didn’t have her first trim (done by mom) until she was four, and even then we discussed it a lot beforehand. I helped her to understand that to keep her long hair healthy and tangle free, it would need a regular trim. Otherwise it would be difficult and painful to brush and would no longer look the way she wanted.
She understands that we need to care for and brush her hair to keep it looking the way it does. She gets to choose how long it will grow. Sometimes she wants me to take a few inches off, something just a tiny trim. And if she ever decides she wants it all cut off or to change it’s color, we can do that too (although I would probably enlist the help of a professional for anything drastic).
This doesn’t mean we set our kids up for failure. As adults, we have the benefit of foresight that our kids might not have yet. This is why, if my daughter wants any drastic change, I will discuss it with her first and make sure she understands the long term effects that her choices will have. If she wants to cut her long hair off, she certainly has a right to do so, but I will help her understand that it will take a long time to grow back, so that she can make an informed decision.
And obviously, if she wants to wear shorts and a t-shirt to the store in the middle of winter, I will still pack something warm for her, knowing that she will probably end up getting cold. Kids don’t need to “learn the hard way” – they need supportive parents.
Don’t Force Your Child to Take Pictures With Santa
Or the Easter Bunny, or Disney characters, or the mascot at the town fair, or any other person or character you may encounter.
Maybe your child will love having their picture taken with a certain character. If they want to, that’s great. It has been my experience that most children do not want to do this, and adults will still try to convince them to in order to have that “special” keepsake picture. Forcing, convincing and even bribing your child in order to get a picture of them in an uncomfortable situation is definitely not supporting their bodily autonomy.
We must remember the messages we are sending to our children with the choices we make. How important will it be ten or twenty years from now whether or not you have a picture of your child sitting on the lap of a stranger dressed in a Santa suit? Probably not very important. Far more important will be the confidence that your child has in their own body, and the relationship of openness and trust that they have with you.
Allow Your Child to Say No
This is basically the whole idea here. Teach your child that they can say “No” or “Stop” with regard to anything related to their bodies and that others are supposed to listen. Help them understand the importance of these words. They need to know that these words have power, and that in the rare case that someone does not respond to these words with regard to their bodies, that it is wrong.
Ways you can practice this with your children involve always stopping when they tell you to. My daughter absolutely LOVES to be tickled, which surprises me since I can’t stand it. But she really loves it and asks to be tickled regularly. She also knows that when she tells us to stop, we stop immediately.
I love cuddling with and hugging my babies. I would do it all day long if they would let me. But if my daughter is not in a cuddly mood and doesn’t want a hug then that’s ok too. Same with the babies. I can tell when they want to be put down and when they want to be held.
This doesn’t mean you have to ask with words every single time you want to touch your children. You can sense what kind of mood they are in. You can offer a hug by opening your arms and seeing how they respond, or reach for their hand and wait to see if they take it. The thing is that if they are not into it, you have to be ok with that too. Don’t try to guilt them into showing affection to anyone, including yourself! This is not the message we should be sending.
No means No, and this is something my six year old daughter has understood for a long time. I even hear her saying it to others and she is so confident in saying it. This is something I hope all children learn.
Teach Your Child To Ask Before Touching Another Person
Perhaps the hardest part in supporting your child’s right to bodily autonomy is teaching them that others have the same right. Some kids are naturally boisterous and affectionate around other children. It may be hard to teach them that they need to ask before touching another child (or even adult), but it is so important. Teaching your child that their body belongs to them means you must also teach them that other people’s bodies belong to those people and that they have just as much of a right to say “no”.
Teach your children to ask before they touch another child. Have them ask if it’s okay to give a friend a hug. Make sure they understand that if someone says “no” or “stop” that they must immediately stop and not act upset about it. In the same way that adults should not use guilt or bribery to get a child to show affection or do something with their bodies that they don’t want to do, children need to learn they can’t use those tactics to get others to do anything either. No means no goes both ways. It’s better for children to learn this as soon as possible.
A good way to teach this is by example in your own home. Young children will often try to feed things to parents, including yucky mushed up food that they are eating. My daughter likes to mush bread into little balls. I don’t want to eat that! So if she offers it to me, I say no thanks. I don’t give in, and I remind her that she wouldn’t want me to make her eat anything. If children can think of how they might feel in a situation, it helps them to learn to empathize with others.
There are so many ways that you, as a parent, can support your child’s right to bodily autonomy. No matter what, always remember that your child’s body belongs to them, just as your body belongs to you. Nobody, including a parent, has a right to tell another person what to do with their own body. If you can remember this and keep it at the forefront of your mind, it will go a long way to helping you teach your children that every person’s body belong to that person, and only that person.
I hope that some of the ideas in this article can help your children to develop a healthy sense of self, and a confidence that no other person, no matter who it is, has any right to control their bodies. Every human being has a right to govern their own body. I hope that our society can start to accept that children deserve these basic human rights, and end childism.
To read more about the concept of childism – here is a really great article: