I’ve sat down to type some thoughts out. My kids won’t notice – they are deep within their collective imagination, pulling suitcases and sleeping bags along the floor. I hear Juno call out “I’m just going to America to have a sword fight!” Ramona calls back “Your body, your choice!”
“My body, my choice” is a bit of a mantra around here. My daughters are figuring out the power and the practicalities of this phrase. Sometimes they need reminding that “My body, my choice” doesn’t mean they get to hurt people, or sword fight Americans, or damage things around them. But they absolutely understand that when it comes to things that impact their body, they are the ones that get to decide. That’s called:
It’s the idea that we are each the boss of our own bodies. We get to set our own body’s boundaries. We get to say who touches it and when, what happens to it, what we put on it and in it.
Why is body autonomy important for children?
There are lots of reasons why developing a healthy sense of body autonomy is important for children. One of the key reasons is the preventative role that body autonomy can play when it comes to child sexual abuse; one of the first steps in changing our culture (a culture where one in three girls and one in six boys will experience child sexual abuse by age sixteen) involves teaching children and families about the importance of not forcing children to kiss and hug friends and family. Innocently coercing children into physical greetings can create an environment where far more sinister touch is forced upon them. This is widely accepted amongst child abuse prevention strategies and I am excited to see the beginning of a normalising of opt-in physical greetings for children. It’s radical and world changing. And we have a growing sense of body autonomy to thank for it.
However, this isn’t the primary reason for making body autonomy a priority for raising kids. The first reason, the foundation, if you like, is that it is a basic human right to get to say what happens to our own bodies. As adults, we take this right for granted. We are rightly outraged when people touch us without consent. It is hard to even imagine being force fed or forcibly moved about. If, as a society, we could shift our perspective on children to one that is “My child is a human being! Free and equal in dignity and rights” a lot of the following becomes quite straightforward.
Talking about body autonomy can be hard
Talking about human rights, particularly when it comes to children, can be confronting.
It’s important to remember that the fulfilment of another person’s rights doesn’t impede your own fulfilment of rights. We don’t need to have a scarcity mindset when it comes to human rights. Indeed, the opposite is true! The more we honour different people’s rights, the more we fully experience our own personhood. All of our human rights are bound up in each others.
The same goes for our children’s development of body autonomy. We needn’t be afraid that making room for our children’s full expression and ownership of their bodies undermines our own freedom and comfort. We do, however, have to be prepared to be triggered as we go on this journey. Most of us grew up with a limited sense of our body autonomy – there has been a systematic control of children’s bodies for generations.
This might be a challenging read. Without being patronising, I invite you to take some deep breaths, imagine your mind as a big ship with billowing sails – all sorts of ideas and perceptions can come on board and you’ll keep floating, you’ll keep moving on this ocean of life! Once you sit with things on your boat for a while, you can toss ‘em overboard if they don’t fit with your crew!
I also invite you, with each example, to picture it being you, not your children. Imagine your partner pinning you down to brush your hair, your partner making you eat something before you are given permission to leave the table, your partner taking you by the shoulders and steering you away from the friend you were talking with or the job you were doing.
I also invite you to be part of this discussion. I recognise that all of my writing comes from a privileged place; I am white, physically able, establishment educated. I want to open this discussion right up. I believe that the first bolded statement in each section is a truth about our children’s human right, but that following that is my opinion and perspective. I end each section with my own observations about where this gets tricky and some of my own ideas for creative solutions. But what this discussion needs, REALLY needs, is the views and perspectives of parents from a wide range of situations and family make up, orientation, socioeconomic status, race, identity, and abilities. Discussions like this move the statements about child rights, truths that can be hard for families to honour, into reality.
5 areas we can support healthy body autonomy in our children
It is our child’s right to choose their clothing.
We went to an unschooling camp last weekend. There are many things I love about this camp and one of them is the complete disregard for clothing norms! You actually can’t tell the boys from the girls, which is how the world should be! There were toddlers in giant hoodies and nothing else, and, like my own kids, onesies that weren’t change for three days. Kid’s should get to chose what they put on their bodies. If it is pyjamas at a museum – so be it. Bring on the day when parent’s don’t feel bad or ashamed about their child’s Nutella covered top or their boy that insists on wearing a ballgown.
- Examine your ideas about “appropriate clothing”
- Make it easy for them to access their clothing.
- Make enough time in the mornings for them to pick their outfits.
- Remove limits on clothing, both day and night.
- Let them chose their own clothes at the shop (we only shop at second hand stores to make this affordable)
- If you are worried about them getting cold/ too hot – raise it with them. If they decide to keep wearing what they are wearing, pack them an extra jumper for later, just in case. They don’t need to “feel the consequences” – they need to see an ally in their parent!
- Kids have to wear uniform. I believe that parents need to be allies to their children when it comes to uniform – for example, when gendered uniform doesn’t support a child’s identity.
- This can also be tricky when clothing is used as an indicator of neglect. As an example, last year my daughter had what the internet told me was a “slum sickness” – when I went to the Dr I had a fear that they would “look into us” because of it, coupled with our unschooling. It was possibly unfounded, but it did make me dress us all up in squeaky clean clothes and gave me an insight into how unrealistic it might be to ask families already on the radar to to forgo societal expectations about their children and clothing. For example, my Maori friend who is unschooling her children who has the authorities drop by every now and then, completely uninvited, who has come to understand that letting her children go barefoot around town would be almost dangerous for her.
- Lots of discussion about uniforms, figuring out what could help your child feel comfortable with the uniform, working with your child to try and change the school’s uniform policy.
- Keeping on trying to figure out what it is our children LOVE or HATE about a certain item of clothing, and finding ways to provide it. When my child was a toddler she didn’t want to wear underpants or trousers, only free flowing skirts. I didn’t feel this was safe outside of the home. I finally realised that she hated the feel of seams on her legs – she is highly sensory and simply couldn’t handle it. After months of agonising and trying and trying different things, we discovered that loose-ish shorts were a winner for her. So everytime I passed a second hand store I would duck in and buy an extra pair of loose shorts.
- A live and ongoing discussion about why they have to conform this time (trusting you have examined well your thoughts and biases) and your discomfort about how it doesn’t allow them full body autonomy.
It is our child’s right to chose what they eat and when they eat.
Food was an easy one for me to release control over. I suffered with a pretty awful eating disorder for many years and it convinced me that I would never mix emotion and food. Food is simply food. It can nourish us, it can be delicious. But there is no “good” food or “bad” food and there was definitely no forcing of food into a child. I wanted eating to be associated with community, sharing, happiness, conversation, fun. Not guilt or shame or lack of control or power.
And it’s a mixed bag. We’ve gone weeks without ticking all the “food pyramid” layers. And then my kids will go on a raw cabbage bender. Some nights their plates are wiped clean, other nights they’ve eaten apples and chocolate before dinner and they don’t feel like sausages so they don’t eat them and then they make themselves a sandwich a couple of hours later.
I trust that they will get SO much more from watching me choose huge varieties of food, exploring different flavours and trying different cuisines, of favouring vegetables over sweets, compared to watching my mouth move saying words like “the food pyramid.”
- Sit down and write the shopping list together with their input and favourites
- Make a shelf in the cupboard/ fridge that they can access when they are hungry
- Make platters of snacks that are available to them through the day or create for them a lunch box (if you are worried about food wastage)
- Coming up with meals that your children like, together. Even if it means eating the same 5 meals for a year.
- Cook together (Ramona will eat almost anything as long as she helped cook it.)
- Make dinnertime fun and conversational (we often do Momastery’s questions over dinner, we love it!) Sometimes the girls don’t want to come to the table – Tim and I take it as a chance to have a romantical Dinner For Two
- If your child doesn’t want to eat at dinner, try not to worry. Trust they will meet their needs, with your support. It can get easier and easier to let go control of this area, once you begin.
- Model a happy and healthy attitude towards food.
- Finances don’t allow kids to tap into food sources whenever they want.
- Children have health problems or special circumstances.
- There is sugar everywhere. We went to the library last week and they were giving away lollipops – really, seriously, WHY?
- Being honest with our kids can really help; “nuts can be expensive so we can only get one bag a week. Feel free to tuck into the carrots / bread though.”
- Xylitol lollies in bulk from the internet.
- A discussion with your children about the parameters around sugar or other food you have to limit for health reasons. We have a couple of health problems that have made us recently limit sugar. We came up with a plan together. When our children can’t handle sticking to the plan, we remind them about it and the reasons why, and sometimes they still chose to eat the lolly and suffer the consequences. Often they are good with sticking to it.
- I loved this article from Sacraparental about phrases that can help foster body autonomy, healthiness and respect around the dinner table.
It is our child’s right to choose when to sleep
We can’t force another human to sleep. It is not our job and it is an extreme violation of their body autonomy! Using bribery or fear or punishment to make someone sleep undermines our relationship to that person and tells them that they are far from the boss of their body.
I do understand, though, that this can be a hard one to figure out. Or to release our fears over. We are afraid that if we let our children chose when to sleep that they will not get enough sleep, and that the whole family will pay for it.
It might also be a practical thing. At the moment we all live in a one room home. Our lounge, kitchen, dining room, and bedroom are all one metre away from each other. This means that when one family member is sleeping the others all try to be quiet. So rather than giving our eldest daughter complete free reign, we stage the evening (in a loose way) from rambunctious play to reading to sleeping, if she wants. If she doesn’t want to we still ask that she allows others to.
Simply remembering the role of seasons can help me feel a freedom around this. Sometimes in the middle of summer when my daughter is still awake at 11pm I think “ARGGGH OUR LIVES ARE BONKERS” and then in the winter when we are all in bed asleep at 8:30pm I remember that summer is for wild nights and winter is for catching up on sleep.
Also, remembering that some people literally don’t need the sleep that others do can help a lot. We are all so different and holding this firmly in our mind can help us relax about forcing children to sleep. I have one daughter that is a solid eleven hours each night sleeper and another that seems to survive on eight.
- Observe your child for a while – what is their natural sleep rhythm?
- Allow yourself to loosen control to reflect these patterns.
- If you do decide to slowly release control over this area – expect that their might be a little while where your child revels in this new found freedom and goes beyond their comfort levels. Keep the conversation alive!
- Model healthy sleep behaviour!
- Spend some time examining what fears you have around sleep/ lack of sleep.
- Have a brainstorm about how you can help all the different members of your family find a bedtime rhythm
- Our children seem like they are not getting enough sleep.
- Parents are not getting enough sleep because there children are awake.
- You have to be up consistently every morning, for school etc.
- You have a number of differently aged children.
- Giving a chance for your child to download form the day – often sleep is hard because they still have so much to process. Lying in bed and talking together before bed can be great for this.
- Making it easy for bed – having great novels you read together makes bedtime a BEAUTIFUL thing for children.
- Having nightly rituals that can increase melatonin – dimming lights, quietening down, eating bananas! (I advocate this melatonin stuff for AFTER a big family wrestle because actually, contrary to instinct, laughter and letting go of tension is key to an easier sleep time.)
- Discussing with our children what might work for the whole family. Could they have some audio stories they listen to in bed when the rest of the family sleeps? Could they play in their room, if you are worried about their wakefulness disturbing you or siblings?
- Discussing with your child their own needs and coming up with solutions that work for them – i.e., you do have to be up for school, how can we make it easier for you to quieten down for the night?
It is our child’s right to say no to touch
Cutting our kids hair, picking up a baby, hugging a nephew, ear piercing. All of these things need to be done with explicit permission. Studies have shown that even a three month old baby moves its body to anticipate being picked up – we can begin signalling, and receiving signals about their consent very early on.
Last week I was holding a one year old. After a few minutes a ten year old girls came up behind her, put her hands under her armspits to pull her up – immediately a look of fear spread across the one year old’s face. How frightening and disempowering it must feel to be picked up and set down with no warning! I said “Ooops, would you like to come around and ask her if she wants to be held by you? It’s important to ask permission if you want to pick a baby up.” The girl came round and said “Can I hold you?” and the little one year old clung to me with a stormy expression. I said “Perhaps not this time!” About twenty minutes later the young girl came back. She came straight to the baby’s front and held out her arms towards her, said “Can I have a cuddle?” The one year old threw open her arms and bounced on my lap, fully ready to go to her new friend.
It gave me great hope. The young girl got such a clear message from the baby and it made me feel as if all of her interactions with babies from then on would be coloured by this experience of the one year old consenting to touch. I feel like humans can be so quick to learn and feel evidence suggests that when we try we really can change these ingrained habits.
We don’t get to cuddle, kiss, tickle, cut the hair of, pierce ears of children. They are not our bodies and they are not our possessions. We must always ask.
- Talk to family members and let them know that you are trying to help your child develop a healthy sense of body autonomy, ask them to create space for your child to consent to hugs or kisses on greetings. Sometimes this is an explicit “Can Nan have a hug?” but as family gets more used to the idea it can sometimes be as simple as opening up your arms and seeing if your child will hug them.
- Come up with a phrase you say to take the edge of the awkwardness out of it “High fives or hugs for Aunty Lyn? Nope? Can I get one, Aunty?” You get braver and braver, promise!
- Get into the habit of speaking to your baby about when you are going to do something to them. “Are you ready to be picked up?” “Are you ready for me to take down your nappy?” “I’m going to put cream on your vulva now” – before long this kind of open communication with the tiniest of babies becomes utterly natural. I even found myself speaking this way to our newborn calf last night as I gave her a bottle!!!!!
- If you find yourself thinking about doing something to your child (ear piercing/ hair cut) ask how you can work in a consensual process into it. If they are too young to consent to something, particularly something painful for aesthetic reasons, please consider postponing until they can consent.
- There are safety/ hygiene issues at stake. Needing to take medicine, needing a medical procedure. These can be so tricky if the child isn’t consenting.
- There is a cultural context to consider- in some cultures greeting with cuddles and kisses has always been done and is felt to be a precious part of their identity.
- I have begun a new Facebook group “Parent Allies” – it is an idea I am trying to build. This sense that children need allies in their parents. More than friends, better than an advocate. They need people to stand by them, to see things from their perspective, to effect change where possible.If you see yourself as an ally to children, please join. It is a great group for coming up with creative solutions to issues. Recently in this group there was a great example of body autonomy and medical care. A child needed to take antibiotics. He refused. He said they tasted so awful he couldn’t take them. The parent was worried for his health but also didn’t want to force him. She went back to the hospital. They gave her a different kind of antibiotic. Her boy refused again. She went back, this time the hospital said “Yeah, those two are actually disgusting! Try this one” She took home the third lot of antibiotics and her child swallowed them.It’s easy to say “Well, not everything works out like this!” but actually, I believe that a large majority of parents would have pinned the boy down and forced him to take the medicine. It was only because the mother saw herself as her child’s ally that she kept checking all the options, kept looking for a creative solution. With this frame of mind she was able to find one. This sort of thing happens time and time and time again with child rights. If we start with a position of “It is my child’s right to have a say over their body” we open the door to more ideas and opportunities. If we begin with “I am the parent. I make the calls no matter what” we get absolutely stuck on “My kid is sick. He has got to take this medicine. I must force it down his throat.”
- Of course though, there will be times when a medical procedure needs to be done without consent. Here we must keep our child informed, asked Drs to respect our child and let them know when they are going to be touched, what is happening. We can validate their fears and big feelings. We can still be an ally to our children throughout this. Some great info here about blood tests and children and consent.
It is our child’s right to do what they want to their bodies
If our children want to cut their hair, draw on themselves, get their ears pierced, touch themselves, pick their nose, dance in a certain way, we are given a great opportunity to send them the message “Of course, you are the boss of your body!”
There are lots of micro-actions that we do to try and inhibit our child’s body autonomy starting from when they are small – we move things out of their hands, we pick them up when they are crawling somewhere we don’t want them to go and we face them in a new direction. If, when our babies are tiny, we come to this understanding that they are free beings and can do what they want with their bodies, we will find the beautiful expression of the foot stomping, face-scribbling toddler years far less challenging. And if we find ourselves growing and expanding to this information, my child is a free and autonomous human being, in those childhood years how beautifully prepared we will be when they are 14 and want to pierce their lip?!
My children both have parts of their hair that looks as though it have been shaved. And long, ragged mullets. They just enjoy getting up close and personal with the scissors. What can I say? It looks kinda special. But I don’t really have much more of an opinion on it. Why would I? It’s only hair. Plus, it’s THEIR hair.
I went to a friend’s party recently, a friend whose own children love to freestyle with their own hair. All our kids were playing together, sitting there with their pixie cuts. Another friend arrived and when she saw our daughters all playing together she said “I honestly wouldn’t have even thought of letting my daughter cut her hair! She’s been asking, but I just thought that’s not something that is DONE.” I saw her a few weeks later and her daughter’s hair was all gone. She said “The next time she asked I just gave her the scissors. She had so much fun doing it and it seems to me as though she has come into her own since doing it. It was a bit of a shock, at first, but now I don’t even think of it.”
It’s one of those things where we are making a big deal out of the wrong thing. The hair isn’t the big deal. The message about their body autonomy is the big deal.
My daughter recently made a big call about her body – please watch my latest video to hear some of my thoughts on this:
- Don’t just do something, stand there! This phrase, from Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non Violent Communication” is such a great one to remember for parents! We can be so quick to jump in with a “Noooo!” or a “CAREFUL” or something we haven’t really examined. The next time you see your child using felt tip pens on her body (or whatever) just pause and ask yourself what could go wrong, why you want to stop her. If there is a good reason (pen on Grandma’s furniture?) help her move to somewhere more appropriate (the garden) but if there is no practical reason to stop her, simply observe and stand back.
- If your child wants to do something more drastic to their body (haircuts or piercings) do the same thing – sit with your feelings for a while, and if you still feel it necessary to talk them over with your child (ie – piercings can hurt/ hair takes a while to grow back, raise them with your child, but in a way that is you sharing information rather than trying to convince them one way or another. It is far better for our children to see us as helpful, trustworthy sources of information rather than people who try and control their thoughts or thwart their plans.Tricky when:
- Traditional cultural practice is that ears get pierced/ hair doesn’t get cutCreative solutions:
- Even when there are deeply held cultural or religious practices that dictate what a child should/ shouldn’t do with their bodies we can still develop a conversation around our children’s rights. There are some awesome brave indigenous folk raising awareness around the rights and healthiness of body autonomy in children in the face of cultural traditions that can undermine it.
- If we are unable to be a part of that progressive front (for whatever reason, much love to you) we can still be discussing it with our children “Our people think you should do this, huh? How do you feel about it? I’m finding it hard as I want to embrace tradition but I also believe it is your right to have self-chosen boundaries with your body. Is there anything we can do together to make this work for you?”
Their body, their choice
I’m not perfect on all of this. On a weekly basis I mess up, apologise to my children and remind myself that I’m learning! I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who has this all wrapped up. Upholding our children’s rights is such an extremely counter-cultural way of living. It is a huge learning curve and can be full of triggers, particularly when many of our own childhood’s were tightly controlled and our sense of body autonomy undermined. We must be kind to ourselves, and supportive to each other.
Hearing my children tell each other “Your body, your choice” is music to my ears, balm on the wounds I carry from two decades of not being quite sure that my body is my business alone. It is a slogan borrowed from the brave and beautiful feminist movement, but one that looses no power from it being spoken by children.
When a generation of children understand that their body and their rights will be respected, we can expect that the whole world will change; that humankind will be defined by the dignity and equality between all people.
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