“Their Body, Their Choice” Extends to Children as Well
Why the littlest members of society must know the value of bodily autonomy
The last time I visited my parents, my sister and my niece were staying with them as well. My niece is two-and-a-half, and the light of all of our lives. She’s pint-sized and ferociously independent, and we all enjoyed the time together spoiling her.
At the end of the visit, we were standing in the kitchen, getting ready to say our goodbyes.
“Allie can I have a hug?” my mother asked my niece.
“Hugs in car,” my niece responded, toddling toward the door.
“No,” my sister replied. “Mimi and Maggie aren’t going in the car with us. Papa is going to help us carry our things to the car, but Mimi and Maggie are staying here.”
Allie stopped and pondered this for a moment.
“Mimi and Maggie don’t go outside,” she said. “Mimi and Maggie stay in here.”
“Yes,” my sister said.
Allie toddled back to my mother and gave her a big hug. Then, she stopped and examined me for a moment.
Give me a big hug or I’ll die! I screamed inside my head.
She smiled, and then much to my relief, reached out and gave me a hug.
To all the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. who itch to squeeze the teensy people in their lives — I get it.
“It’s so hard,” my brother-in-law told me once. “Sometimes I just want to hug her forever, but she doesn’t want that, and as I also want to teach her that her body is hers, I have to let her squiggle away from me.”
As we were saying goodbye to my sister and niece that weekend, I consciously squelched every impulse I had in order to not reach over and rip my niece out of my mother’s arms for a hug of my own.
Still, I forced myself to wait for Allie to give me a hug of her own volition, and told myself that if she chose not to give me a hug goodbye, I’d need to be okay with that. She may only be two, but it’s still up to her who touches her body.
Bodily autonomy is one of the most important things we can teach our babies.
Physical boundaries are important, and often must be learned.
Boundaries are especially important when it comes to our physical space and our bodies — and the easiest time to send this message is when children are young and open to learning.
I’ve written before about my personal disinterest in children (aside from my niece, of course), and part of the reason for this is because children are still exploring their boundaries. More than once I’ve had a friend’s child come and just plop themselves in my lap. I don’t love it when this happens.
I don’t love it when children play with my hair, or lean on me when I’m sitting down, or whisper “secrets” to me. I don’t like having people in my physical space without invitation — and for me, this includes children.
I don’t blame the children for this — they’re still learning. And, as I want them to learn that they should not just go sit on someone without asking first, I also want them to learn that they can say “no” if someone requests physical contact that they don’t want to give.
Teaching children that they are in control of their bodies will make it easier for them to say “no” to unwanted requests.
Often, when a child says “no,” to a parent or other adult, there are consequences — fair consequences. For example, if a child doesn’t eat their broccoli, they don’t get to eat cake.
But, by teaching children explicitly that their body is their own and that they can say “no” to any physical contact they don’t want — without consequences — we bolster their confidence in saying “no” as it’s appropriate.
Child predators often “groom” children, building up their trust before tricking them into physical actions. Children who have repeatedly heard from trusted adults that their body is theirs to control may have an easier time refusing predatory advances than a child who feels that they must obey adults at all times.
A lifetime of practice can also make saying “no” easier as an adult.
When I think about all of the women that I know (and also some of the men), I remember the multiple stories I’ve heard — that we’ve all heard — in which someone ends up in a strange situation and has trouble self-extracting.
There are the stories in which one person leans too close to them in a bar, or touched them stealthily and inappropriately — or worse.
In many of these stories, the victim tried to shrug off their discomfort, and remain polite — because, for hundreds of years, we’ve been taught to be polite at almost all costs.
But, if these adults had been taught as children that their space and body was their own and that there was no need to be polite in the face of such discomfort — if this message had been the rule by which they’d been taught to live — they might have had an easier time calling attention to the harassment. They might have felt more confident and able to loudly say “no,” and move away.
Further, children who understand their own bodily autonomy have an easier time applying this same rule to others.
Imagine if the perpetrators in the above scenarios had been taught as children that the only person entitled to one’s body is the person living inside of it.
I saw this in action first-hand when I used to teach grammar school. The children who understood that no one should touch their bodies without permission were also the children least-likely to touch another child’s body with permission.
Lessons learned young — such as “don’t hit” or “don’t steal” often become so ingrained that they’ve become second-nature by adulthood — even if they’re not followed 100% of the time.
“You don’t have to let anyone touch your body without permission,” is another good one to add to the list.
When we discuss famous sexual harassment or rape cases — like that of Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein — the argument I often hear made in their favor is, “Well, that’s just how they grew up.”
I don’t personally think that this is an acceptable excuse for their heinous behavior — but it does remain true that the things they were taught as children are different than the things we’re teaching our children now.
We can eliminate the above excuse by teaching children from an early age that no one has the right to touch their body without permission — and that they also don’t have the right to touch anyone without invitation.
While teaching children the importance of bodily autonomy will not cure the world of all of its harassment and abuse, it will help. We’ll bolster the autonomy of children as they grow, giving them the confidence and the space to govern themselves as they see fit — which is one more tool to help keep them safe — and pave the way to healthier relationships.
And, as the generations grow, it could become more commonplace to persecute harassment cases, and less commonplace to feel welcome harassing anyone at all.
Making children feel safe and in control of their bodies is an easy place to start.