Imagine if you didn’t have a say over when, what or how your body was used. Imagine if it was up to someone else when your hair was cut. Imagine if someone forced you to hug or kiss someone for their own reasons. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to choose your clothing. Imagine if someone forced you to eat when, what and how much they thought was enough.
How would that feel? How do you think you would you react?
This is the reality for many children.
Bodily Autonomy is a Human Right
It may make you feel uncomfortable to think of children having these choices, but this is their right. Bodily autonomy is a human right and children are humans. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, I think it’s a clear indication that you need to explore why that is. Many parents feel an undeserving control over their children’s bodies and choices.
Unless the decision is genuinely impacting their safety or hygiene, what is the real reasoning behind not giving them the choice?
Perhaps you feel societies pressure to control children? Perhaps you feel like you can make a ‘better’ choice? But what message is that sending your child? And whose life is this choice impacting most?
Lucy decided to cut her own hair when she was four.
We discussed it first and helped her do it – she was thrilled with it!
Parents sometimes unknowingly enforce control over their children’s bodies. I feel like it begins with feeling protective and responsible for their health, safety and well-being. But children’s body autonomy needs to be respected.
Children have a right to make any and all choices about their bodies. This is not only important with regards to consent and safety and knowing no one else can touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. But it should also include who they kiss or hug, if they cut their hair, when and how much they eat and sleep, and appropriate clothing choices.
Children learn to make good choices by being able to make choices
I often read parents saying that without them forcing their child to eat or sleep that they would make poor choices. But have you tried? Have you pushed past the initial stage where they process that freedom after not having it? Have you worked with them providing appropriate choices of food and let them manage what they consume? Or are you working off assumptions and myths?
Allowing bodily autonomy is one of many reasons I don’t agree with routine infant circumcision. By all means, if my son would like to alter his body with tattoos, piercings or whatever he wants, he’s free to do so once he’s old enough to consent. Ultimately, it’s not my body, I do not have the right to alter his body unless there is a serious medical necessity.
It’s also why I won’t pierce my children’s ears unless they ask and choose to when they’re older. I know that in the grand scheme of things, piercing a child’s ears doesn’t seem like a big deal. However, to me it is about the message it is sending the child – which is that it is somehow your place to modify their body.
Cam asked to shave his head with a razor when he was six.
He really just wanted to experience the feeling! We helped him.
As a parent or a relative, you’re not automatically entitled to hugs, kisses, or any other physical contact without consent. It’s our job as parents to let kids know that they are both in control of their body and entitled to say “no.” It’s also important to respect our children’s wishes and to step in when others forget to consider their rights and boundaries, even if it causes offense. No matter how harmless it seems to you or anyone else, your children have the right to make those choices regardless and that must be respected.
How do you expect them to say no to unwanted physical contact later in their life if you ignore their feelings about that while they’re young? Giving kids control of their bodies at a young age builds a foundation that will help them create healthy personal boundaries later in life.
Thank you for reading!
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im 19 and i sadly do not get to have bodily autonomy. my teeth are real fucked up which i acknowledge is my own fault but i do not wish to have a procedure done on them, which my mother is forcing me to have anyway at the end of my month- threatening she’ll take away (more like steal lmao) the laptop that I bought and own myself; she also gets emotionally abusive about it when i fight that i’m not going through with it, which i won’t. this is more like an issue of ableism bc im disabled and shes trying to use my disabilities saying i don’t understand, when i do. she’s infantalizing me, not looking me as an actual person, an adult with rights of my own. as a child i put up with all that crap enough i’m an adult now i pay the rent i pay for food don’t i get to be a person that has bodily autonomy too?
im sorry to rant but im real upset bc she tried to force me to do the procedure thing in april but i freaked the hell out it was painful and it couldnt be done, and she gets super duper emotionally abusive and ableist unless i say “yes” even if i dont mean it.
I so agree with this.
One thing I’m not sure how to approach is when it comes to my mother-in-law expecting hugs and kisses on demand, and then acting upset, using bribes, or even sorts of threats to get my daughter to comply (e.g. My daughter asked for another cherry tomato she couldn’t reach on the kitchen bench, and was told “only when you give me kiss.” )
Anyone have tips on how to handle this? It’s already a complex relationship, and while I don’t care about causing offence as such, I’m just not sure how to explain it to her in a way she will understand and accept. Just telling her we believing in bodily autonomy won’t really get through. And I’m concerned about it causing resentment and subconscious recrimination that will fall back on my daughter.
To J – Here’s an article covering that. You will have to be firm & clear – Johnny will not be hugging you except on his own terms. You need to stop bothering him about it.
Marion Brook says
There are 3 pieces of information you might find helpful here.
a) The biggest influcence in the development and learning of young children are their parents (or the people who are raising them). Beyond the actions and beliefs of any other people who care for your child, it is you – your love, your beliefs, your approaches to raising your child – which will determine the way they feel about themselves and manage the slings and arrows of the world around them.
b) Consistancy is a myth. The world is not consistant. People are not consistant. Everyone has different ideas and approaches and beliefs and children learn this fact very early on in life and adjust their expectations towards others accordingly. They learn to trust people who are fair and wise and keep their promises and (as long as they have an alternative in their parents) they learn to avoid or ignore people who are controling, unkind or untrustworthy.
c) Telling grandparents how to grandparent NEVER improves a situation. EVER.
The answer? Let go. Know that you are the most influential person in your child’s life and leave grandma to get it wrong all by herself. If you foster a sence of agency and autonomy in your child they will know when that is being violated and it will only strengthen their trust and belief in you, their parent, over the control of others.
Thanks for that. I agree – telling grandparents never works. ? I just know there’s no way to put it that won’t backfire.
And it’s encouraging to be reminded of the influence we as parents have in building her own sense of self and resilience. While I’ll always do what is best to protect her when it’s needed, I also trust in her own autonomy in this as in everything. It’s developing of course, but it’s definitely already there, no doubt about that. ?
I agree, but also you need to be always close when with the inlaws so you can be her advocate.
Then, you need to think very hard about how much time you spend around them.
True, it could backfire if you speak with her.
I don’t think it’s appropriate either though (although I agree with the basics of it), to say that grandma is part of the world that I can’t change and so I will let my child be subjected to bribery, and forced bodily contact.
I think you need to be very clear with her in a consistent way. The verbiage you received above as to what to say to her is very good.
Your allegiance is to your daughter and her present as well as future well being.
I have sexual abuse in my family, and what grandma is doing is exactly what a molester will do to groom your child and gain their trust. If you let grandma do it, you are sending a message to your daughter that this is okay, that she should not trust her gut. This could put her in great peril at a later time.
Being a parent is not easy, and sometimes you will only be able to do what you know is best for you child, and no one else. But, this way your heart can be at rest that you are doing right by her.
Tibby Wroten says
This is all so true! I’ve written about this before and talked to friends about it. I’m so glad to see you saying it too. I think this idea is especially important as it pertains to girls. Because forced hugging and kissing of relatives (and other seemingly less innocuous things we force kids into) teaches them that they don’t have choices, they can’t make choices and they can’t read the signs their own body is giving them (be that feeling uncomfortable or scared or just hungry). So when that family friend or, god forbid, relative tells them to touch him or their boyfriend tells them to get into the back of a car to have sex, they will because they’ve been taught to do what others tell them to do with their bodies. It seems silly and alarmist, but it’s so deeply ingrained in the messages we give kids both in “traditional” parenting and certainly in traditional education that it’s really not a big leap to those things happening. Personally I don’t know how I feel about circumcision . There can be a religious component and tradition, but if you aren’t religious it should be well thought out and researched decision.
I completely agree with everything in this post, and thanks for writing it. I’m facing one problem at the moment and I was wondering if you, or any of your readers, had faced anything similar and had any suggestions. It’s part related to body independence and part just general independence. My son who is three and a half, has started wanting to clean himself at bath time and does not want me to do it. This is fine except he doesn’t do a very thorough job and after a few days begins to smell…I try everything I can think of to say to him to get him to let me bathe him that day (currently i’m trying a one day on, one day off technique which seems like a ‘fair’ compromise) but we usually end up arguing and I have to basically grab him to wash him which I hate doing. I love that he wants to wash himself, but I don’t want him to smell and be unclean either, do you have any advice??? Thanks!
Not quite the same, and my daughter was younger, but for a while she went through a phase of refusing to let her hair be washed or brushed. Okay except for when she had cradle cap I was trying to address, and when she had food in her hair… which was fairly often :)
Sometimes I persisted, but hated doing it when she hated it so much. So eventually I just grabbed moments when she would let me ‘spot’ clean. And in the end the cradle cap cleared up by itself. And eventually she got past it and is happy to get her hair wet now. So with your son, could it just be a phase you have to persist with — just gently encouraging better washing habits, and putting up with a bit of smelliness until it gets better?
The other thing you could try is washing less? Or at least using soap less? Washing and soap changes the natural balance of the skin, and can sometimes cause smell to get worse. The more you wash the more you need to wash. Different if it’s dirt and mess you’re trying to get off of course, and with kids that’s the case often! But I’ve found with my daughter that her skin is healthier and everything maintains its own equilibrium if we don’t bath every day just for routines sake.
Anna donald says
Thankyou for putting my thought into words. My same thoughts in ear piercing and thus circumcision. I was called an internet troll because i used circumcision as an example of why we need to think before getting our kids ears pierced. It is a change to their body that is not necessary.
I serve my kids food, they choose to eat it, just like i choose to eat when i want too.
I just ask my kids go to their rooms at bed time but they dont have to sleep.
Kids seriously dont get enough choice in decisions concerning them. Is it worth the fight
While teaching structure and helping them understand why it’s necessary in the world around you, nothing you say is out of line or senseless. When children start to realize the power of choice and consequence they learn much more richly than when you try to force them to be a freaking robot.