Raising kids these days is getting harder and harder. I’m currently parenting two daughters (seven- and 14-years-old) and a four-year-old son. We foster so we often that we see a lot of teen girls who have trauma history and I, myself have been abused by a family member. Through my own healing and our training, I learned the concept of body autonomy. Body autonomy is defined as the governance over one’s body without the outside influence of others. In educating myself, I learned the benefits of teaching the concept at an early age and I also learned a variety of ways the kids can exercise it in their young lives.
Here are 5 ways we teach it in our home.:
- When greeting or departing family members, we do not force physical attention. That means if my seven-year-old daughter doesn’t want to hug grandma and grandpa goodbye, she doesn’t have to. My kids do not need to hug a new uncle they have never met and we do not make them feel badly for that. This doesn’t give them a pass to be rude, however. We focus on eye contact and verbal communication in order to be polite. We have met some conflict here, but I feel it is also so beneficial for the kids to see someone standing up for body autonomy.
- We ask before we do anything to their bodies. For instance, if one of the kids is having a problem with their body that requires help from us, we ask before we touch and help them, especially if it involves removing clothes. This reinforces that even adults who they know are not allowed to just do whatever they want to them. I remember as a child not being allowed to question the grown-ups, giving adult abusers power for a long time. If the kids know they have the right to say no, they are more likely to stand up when being approached and more likely to tell a trusted adult if something were to happen.
- We use different phrases that emphasize the power the kids have over their own bodies. For instance, Jasmine may ask for my opinion on her neon green nail polish and I would respond with “it’s your body, choose the color you like, not the one I like.” This helps practice making decisions about their own body. If a friend comes over and the kids are excited, they may run over and try to hug the friend. I ask that they pause and ask if they can hug them. This is helped a lot when my very intense group meets up with one of their more shy and reserved friends.
- We stop when they say “Stop.” During any play, especially tickling, we stop the play as soon as the kids say the word “stop,” which has framed good conversations for us. Like all kids, our children might be saying stop, but then be taken aback when the tickling stops abruptly. We then talk about how playing “stop” is not a good idea, because it is confusing for the other person to know when you are serious and when you are not. So they learn the power of “no” and the expected behavior from the other person when they say it. This is great for our daughter and our son to frame consent. We also talk a lot about looking at someone’s face and seeing if they are having fun or not. Reading body language is a very powerful tool as well.
- We remove shame from the body. We try very hard to not hold any shame around their body. This means calling parts by their actual name and not sexualizing the children. The latter is the hardest since we are breaking mental barriers that we have had in place since childhood. This comes up more with our daughters right now, often around their dressing choices and school dress codes. Telling our seven-year old that a crop top isn’t allowed leads them to shame their body. The only reason my parents didn’t allow it was because they were sexualizing the clothing. Even my 14-year-old has the right to wear a crop top to the store without feeling sexualized by everyone she meets. We still teach them how to dress for occasions and appropriateness, like not wearing a bikini to a black-tie event, but we are not enforcing outdated dressing concepts. I could go on and on about dress codes.