Bodily autonomy is the right for a person to be in control of their own body. This concept applies to both boys and girls and is something that all parents should teach their kids. When children understand their rights, they’ll be more willing to respect themselves and others. They’ll also feel more confident and secure in their own bodies
Here are a few ways parents can encourage bodily autonomy and help their kids grow into the strong, independent adults they were always meant to be.
Teach Anatomic Names
One of the best ways to encourage bodily autonomy is to teach your kids the correct anatomic names for every body part — including their private parts. While this topic might be a bit awkward to discuss, it’s necessary to support your child’s health and safety. Their yearly check-ups are a great time to reinforce anatomic names.
Using accurate terms can also prepare your little one to talk confidently about the physical changes they may experience as they grow. If you were to teach them cutesy words for their private parts instead, you may unwittingly instill a sense of shame, which can prevent them from sharing concerns or worries. Unfortunately, this may discourage them from communicating if they do experience inappropriate touch.
Discuss Unacceptable Touching
Of course, you should also discuss and define what qualifies as unacceptable or inappropriate touching. Who is allowed to touch and see their body? Where are they allowed to put their hands? Helping your kids understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable contact will help them determine when to consent and when to say no.
One your children have a firm grasp on what is ok and what is not, they’ll also be more willing to report wrongful or uncomfortable physical encounters. Instead of staying silent out of fear, guilt or confusion, they’ll feel empowered to speak up and identify assault for what it truly is.
Teach Permission for Touching
Touching is a two-way street, however. If your little one wants others to respect their boundaries, they must be willing to do the same for others. Teach your kids that everyone has their own bubble of personal space and they must ask permission before popping it. This discussion becomes even more important as they become teens and enter into romantic relationships where consent is a must.
Empower Them to Say No
Most toddlers are already good at saying no. Now, you need to teach them the right things to say no to. For instance, they can say no to adults if they feel uncomfortable with something that is happening to them. Maybe they don’t want to make dessert or eat another bite of food because they’re full. In these instances, it’s best to honor your child’s request to encourage bodily autonomy.
Don’t Force Affection
Along the same lines, if your kid doesn’t want to hug grandma or give you a goodbye kiss on their way out the door, honor their decision to withhold affection. While their actions — or lack thereof — may make you want to teleport back to the days of baby cuddles, it’s important to recognize their displeasure for physical contact.
If you notice your little one pulling away from affectionate advances, honor them by keeping your distance. Teach them other ways to show affection that don’t require them to yield control of their body instead. Thumbs-ups, high fives, salutes and even quick bows are all good ways to greet others and bid them farewell without making close contact.
Offer More Choices
Bodily autonomy is all about making your own choices in regard to your body. Therefore, it only makes sense to offer your kids more options when planning activities that involve them physically. For example, you could let them choose their own outfit or how they wear their hair each day.
Of course, there will be times when offering more than one choice will be just plain impractical. If you’re trying to get them out the door to go to school, there’s no time to choose between five pairs of shoes. However, you can encourage a lifetime of good decision-making whenever your schedule allows. Would they like apples or celery sticks for a snack? Limiting their options to include only healthy choices will also help them choose wisely.
Talk About Keeping Secrets
Most secrets include details about good things like surprise birthday parties or Mother’s Day presents. However, some situations call for complete transparency and sharing secrets instead of keeping them. For the sake of your child’s health and safety, they must know the difference between good and bad secrets.
Use a feelings scale to help them decide between the two. If a secret makes them feel happy, excited or at peace, then it’s probably ok to keep. However, if they receive threats for telling the truth or they feel uncomfortable, scared or angry about keeping a secret, ask them to share it. Reassure them that telling won’t result in punishment and continue to discuss safe and unsafe secrets to maintain an open line of communication.
Laying a Healthy Foundation
It’s never too early to begin teaching your kids about bodily autonomy. In fact, the sooner you introduce anatomic labels and discuss touching, the more empowered they’ll feel. Even at a very young age, they’ll be able to protect themselves and respect others’ boundaries, which can help them grow into a confident, considerate adult. What more could a parent want for their kids?
Kara Reynolds is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Momish Magazine. Mom and step mom living her best life while managing anxiety and normalizing blended families. She enjoys pilates, podcasts, and a nice pinot grigio.
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