Now that I’m an adult and have kids, I’m teaching my children that their bodies are their own and that they’re allowed to say no to physical affection. This can be especially difficult when family members equate respect with compliance.
Growing up as a child of Taiwanese immigrants, I never had a sense that my body or my emotions and mind were my own. Though my parents weren’t as overbearing as other parents, I knew what was expected of me. I would say and feel what they told me was appropriate in a situation. I was an extension of the family and whatever I did was a reflection on them.
I have years of memories blurring into one sense of needing to perform and be what family needed and wanted. Tell that funny joke you told us. Show us that dance move. Play your piano recital piece. Play these worship songs for us. Go help watch the other kids.
I lucked out in the sense that my family was physically (and emotionally) reserved so they never pressured me into unwanted physical touch with other adults or family members—there wasn’t any cheek pinching or unwanted kisses. However, I know that’s not the case for many communities of color or families in general.
Now that I’m an adult and have kids of my own, I’m breaking that cycle and teaching my children that their bodies are their own and no one—not even me—can force them to have any physical contact they don’t want.
I also know the horrific statistics of sexual abuse done to children by adults and this also motivates me to teach my kids about body autonomy.
What Is Bodily Autonomy and Why Is It Important?
Body (or bodily) autonomy is the idea that people, even children, have the right to choose and decide what they do with their body without coercion. In particular, because governments and other influences have historically legislated and tried to control bodies of women, women of color, nonbinary, and transgender folks, this is incredibly important to me as a parent of four children of color.
Steph Lee, M.D., MPH, FAAP, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and Pennsylvania-based pediatrician explains to Parents that giving kids their autonomy helps boost their sense of self. It emphasizes to them that they have control over their bodies.
“Learning how to say ‘no’ helps empower children to speak up when there is unwanted physical touch in any situation,” says Dr. Lee.
What Does Body Autonomy Look Like in Our Home?
While I want to apply the rules of body autonomy in every aspect of my kids’ lives, there are still everyday tasks that need to happen that can feel like I’m forcing my kids to do against their will.
Because my children are old enough to understand and comprehend many situations, I explain why they’re getting their vaccines, taking certain classes, or drinking green smoothies. Though they may not like these necessary life lessons, they trust I have their best in mind. There is always room for discussion and ways to apply consent, though.
When it comes to other choices like what to wear, I let them have their way. If they want to go out in cold weather in just a t-shirt and shorts, they are welcome to experience the consequences of their actions. As for physical touch, my children know they absolutely have the last word. As soon as a kid says “no,” I stop. I never force them to receive physical affection even if sometimes I’m sad about it.
Traci S. Williams, Psy.D., ABPP, Atlanta-based board-certified clinical psychologist, tells Parents that giving kids bodily autonomy is crucial for them to become competent adults.
“By allowing children to increasingly take control of their lives, we provide them with lessons in problem-solving and emotion regulation.”
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It all sounds simple, right? If you don’t want to force your kids to do something, what’s the big deal? However, in many families or communities—especially communities of color—it is a big deal.
“Autonomy can be difficult since communities of color are often more collectivistic in nature. This means that autonomy should benefit the family or social unit more than self,” says Hilda H. McClure, LPC-Associate, a bilingual trauma therapist trained in serving the Hispanic population in Dallas. McClure went on to explain that it can feel as if children are rebelling when in actuality they’re practicing autonomy.
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“Many folks were raised to think kids were to be seen not heard, they had to do as they were told, not think independently,” adds Nevada-based social worker Melanie Rhee, LCSW, about communities of color. “Parents who are raising children who are comfortable with their own autonomy may experience pushback from the older generation. The parent needs to buffer this for the child.”
Both Rhee and McClure suggest thanking family members for their input if they resist your boundaries, but remind them that it’s important for your kids to make their own decisions about their bodies. It will keep them safe from others who may not have good intentions.
You can also acknowledge that their insistence on “listening to elders” came from attempts to keep you safe when you were a child, but you are raising your children with a different approach.
- Statements To Use When Protecting Your Child’s Autonomy:
- Thank you for your your input, but we’re letting our child decide who they want to hug.
- I’m focusing on raising a confident and powerful child which means allowing them to make decisions now, even when they’re young.
- It’s important to us that our child understands and knows how to practice their boundaries.
- If our child is uncomfortable with touch, we don’t force them.
“Educate your relatives, rather than having your child feel uncomfortable,” advises Marcie Beigel, Ed.D. BCBA-D, of New York City. “It may feel like an uncomfortable conversation but that is better than forcing your child into an uncomfortable physical interaction.”
And when in doubt, try to remember what McClure advises: “Always remember that we don’t have to give an explanation around how we parent our kids.”