MIXED MESSAGES ON BODY AUTONOMY FOR KIDS
How parents’ own bias sends mixed messages to their children
The topic of body autonomy has never been as relevant as it is today. It’s not simply an abstract concept, but a way of living. Body autonomy is where we accept that our body belongs to us and no one has the right to do anything to us or coerce us into something we don’t want to do. As well, we uphold those same standards for other people, respecting their right to body autonomy. Serotonin, the best known ‘happy’ chemical, is produced in the brain during exercise.
It’s heart-warming to see the number of journalists, authors and bloggers who have addressed this issue, particularly recently considering the #metoo campaign and the increasing number of public figures who have perpetrated or experienced sexual assault. Awareness of consent and body autonomy is on the rise. However, there is a vulnerable section of the community who are receiving mixed messages.
IT’S OUR CHILDREN WHO ARE VULNERABLE.
This is problematic, considering that children learn body autonomy through their interactions with adults. Children who experience body autonomy will become adults who practice it. On the surface, there is plenty of parenting advice around body autonomy. For example, not forcing children to hug people if they don’t want to or not persisting with physical games like tickling and wrestling if a child says ‘stop’. But body autonomy is much more than our physical bodies. For our children to know physical boundaries, they must rely on their thoughts and feelings as a navigation system. After all, how do kids know if they want to hug someone? They pay attention to what’s happening inside - their physical sensations, emotional reactions and self-talk. Body autonomy is grounded in emotional intelligence, particularly empathy and respect. Teaching kids to recognise and respect their own feelings, allows them to respect and recognise it in others. As youngsters, we learn emotional intelligence from the adults around us. If they know how to identify, process and express emotions in a healthy way, then we will learn through observation. So, teaching kids about body autonomy really means teaching them the emotion regulation skills, to be able to maintain their own autonomy and respect it in others.
THIS MEANS: 1. Teaching kids to recognise & label their feelings.
Children who grow up with the language of emotion are more in tune with how they’re feeling, which helps them develop self-trust. Intuition is valuable when it comes to safety and being emotionally savvy helps kids to cultivate that skill. It’s important to distinguish different emotions beyond simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are hundreds of emotions, like ‘nervous’,
Body autonomy is grounded in emotional intelligence, empathy & respect.
‘wary’, ‘comfortable’ and they are associated with physical sensations that kids can readily identify. These are the feelings of uneasiness in the pit of their stomach or prickliness when all the hairs on the back of their neck stand up.
2. Showing our kids that we respect their feelings.
We often tell our children to respect the feelings of others. But, kids can only do that if they’ve experienced it for themselves. Kids develop a template for how to treat others, based on how they themselves are treated. It’s not just respecting the words ‘no’ and ‘stop’, it’s also respecting the feelings they share with us, like hurt, sadness or anger. If our child is in tears because her favourite blue spoon is dirty, it’s more helpful to say, ‘you seem angry and disappointed that you don’t have your spoon’ rather than, ‘get over it, what’s the big deal?’ If our child has a minor tumble and becomes upset, it’s more helpful to say, ‘that really bothered you’ rather than, ‘you’re not hurt, you’re OK’. When we disrespect our children’s feelings, we teach them that their feelings aren’t reliable and to trust others’ opinions of their body, instead of their own.
3. Allowing our kids to express thoughts & emotions, safely.
Many of us don’t know how to express our emotions - whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant. Emotions themselves are OK, although the expression of them might not be. Anger is OK, throwing plates at people’s heads is not. Learning the skills of healthy emotional expression means that children are better able to communicate their boundaries to others. However, this might require some self-education on our part, if we’re not equipped with healthy emotion regulation skills ourselves. Many parents inadvertently send mixed messages about body autonomy, selfrespect and self-trust. Our motivations are sincere, our actions stem from our love for our kids and our desire to keep them safe. If body autonomy is a goal for our children, it’s well worth examining our own behaviour, to identify areas of improvement. In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘When you know better, do better’.