From day one: bodily autonomy and consent

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(Photo via Mirra Photography, Flickr Creative Commons)

¡Feliz viernes, amig@s!

You’re probably no stranger to the recent news surrounding the US presidential elections, and specifically the track record of candidate Donald Trump: allegations of sexual assault, lewd comments about women caught on tape in 2005, which have sparked intense backlash from both men and women, in and outside the political sphere.

One response in particular caught my attention last week: Canadian author Kelly Oxford tweeted about her first sexual assault at age 12. Her tweet led to a flood of women tweeting their own stories, demonstrating once again that even in 2016 we are still dealing with a culture of rape.

What do Trump, sexual assault, and rape culture have to do with parenting? A lot actually.

Bodily autonomy and consent:

We teach them to our children from the day they are born.

As parents of young children reading the latest headlines, we may be resigned to feeling helpless (“So, this is the world my children are destined to live in.”), or to falsely thinking we have 10 or 15 years until we have to “have the talk” with our teenage children.

I’d like to offer an alternative option.

I believe there are practical, everyday, steps we parents can take now, when our children are young, so that they grow up to be adults who not only respect their own bodies but those of others.

Be encouraged, friends.

1. “With” not “to.” As parents we are sensitive to the fact that our hands and how we use them send a powerful message to our children:

“Hands continue the infant’s first connection to the world (outside of nursing). Hands pick her up, lay her down, wash and dress and maybe even feed her. How different it can be, what a different picture of the world an infant receives when quiet, patient, careful yet secure and resolute hands take care of her—and how different the world seems when hands are impatient, rough or hasty, unquiet and nervous. In the beginning,  hands are everything for an infant. The hands are the person, the world. The way we touch a child, lift and dress her is “us” more precisely, more characteristically than even our words, or smile, or glance. If, from the start, we handle an infant peacefully, patiently, and carefully, she will discover ever more joy in these activities, learning at the same time to trust us more and more and to take an increasing part in our work.” (Dr. Emmi Pikler, Peaceful Babies – Contented Mothers)

Infants, from the day they are born, are fully competent and valuable people; so, instead of viewing caregiving activities, like diapering and bathing, as chores (done “to” babies) to get through as fast as we can so we can move on to more fun activities, we view them as opportunities for intimate bonding and connection “with” our children. We invite even newborns to participate and help with changing their diaper, washing up, and getting dressed by going slow, talking them through each step, and asking for their help.

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(Photo via Ashley Webb, Flickr Creative Commons)

2. Use correct, authentic language. Because we respect our children and believe that they are competent and intelligent individuals, we communicate honestly, authentically, and directly to our children from day one. This means that we speak in first person (“I would like” instead of “mommy would like”) and that we use the biologically correct name for all body parts. It’s a penis, not a “wee-wee.”

It means that we acknowledge, without shame or disgust, that certain parts of their bodies are private and sensitive. When (because they will) our children discover their genitalia and find it to be a new and perhaps pleasurable experience, we respond with, “yes, you’re touching your clitoris/penis. It’s a sensitive part of your body,” not with “Yucky! Don’t touch that!”

It has meant that when E. needed to process why and how baby J. was no longer in my belly that I explained to how he was born, using correct terminology. By speaking respectfully and honestly about their bodies we are helping even our youngest children learn to have a healthy view of their bodies, and consequently we are equipping them with the proper language to self-advocate.

3. NO forced affection. For as uncomfortable as it might make us and as socially awkward as it might be (for us), we do not force our children to dole out physical affection to others. Instead of “Honey, give Grandma a kiss,” we should ask our child, “Would you like to hug Grandma?,” and then we respectfully honor her answer. Instead of shaming our child when he declines to hug his friend back, we defend him by acknowledging, “It looks like you don’t want a hug right now, is that right?” Not only are we showing our children that we respect their bodies and their decisions, but we are standing up for them when they might feel intimated by the requests of older, physically larger, adults.

“There are certain things we [should] make children do which is quite different. We make them brush their teeth, for example. That is quite different to forcing them to kiss an uncle they don’t want to. It’s about boundaries. And this blurring of boundaries [by forcing them to kiss someone they don’t want to] can indeed blur their understanding of what is right and wrong, about their body belonging to them.” (Peter Saunders, chief executive of the U.K.-based National Association for People Abused in Childhood, reinforces this point in The Guardian

4. Model personal boundaries. “No” is not a bad word. And, we shouldn’t lament the day our toddlers learn to use it. We can help them channel that fiery independent will for good by modeling personal boundaries ourselves. “Children learn about consent by being treated respectfully and by adults helping them and stopping them when they are out of bounds.” (Lisa Sunbury, RIE Associate and owner of Regarding Baby)

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(Photo via Stefanos Papachristou, Flickr Creative Commons)

Our young children learn through imitation, watching everything we do and say. So, we can be the first to teach them how to set boundaries to their bodies by being a healthy model for them. Taking them to the park to climb instead of allowing them to climb all over our body. Blocking their hits and kicks during a tantrum while calmly and directly responding, “I can’t let you hit me.” Giving them a chew toy instead of our finger when they’re teething. Taking a break from breastfeeding to pump and bottle feed while your breasts heal (and, not feeling guilty about it).

Lastly, modeling personal boundaries includes taking care of ourselves, our bodies, our health. Self-care: exercise, healthy eating, time apart from our children, meditation, therapy, medication. 

5. Protect their digital footprint. Like every parent, I’m convinced that my children are the greatest and the cutest and I want the whole world to know it! But, I’ve begun to ask myself if I’m really treating my children – their bodies, their privacy – with respect by posting photos of them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram without their knowledge or consent.

Amy Webb of Slate writes that when parents upload photos of their children to social media they are treading dangerous waters:

“[We]…are preventing [them] from any hope of future anonymity….It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to [their] homecoming dates? If [we write] about a negative parenting experience, could that affect [our children’s] ability to get into a good college?… There’s a more insidious problem, though,…. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started.”

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(Photo via Jon Grainger, Flickr Creative Commons)

I confess: before I really understood the risks involved with sharing photos of my children on-line, I posted tons of photos of E. as a baby on Facebook. I’ve since stopped (and, I wish I could take back each one). But I’ll admit: the temptation is still there (especially when I blog about parenting!). What keeps me in check is asking myself, “Would I post a photo of my husband, asleep in his pajamas, with Cheerios lined up on his forehead without his permission?” No. So, then I won’t of my children.

Thank you, friends, for reading along today. I would love to hear your thoughts about helping children learn bodily autonomy and consent. Drop me a line!

Interested in reading more about some of the ideas discussed in today’s blog post? Please check out these helpful articles:

Three mistakes parents make when teaching consent and bodily autonomy – and how to fix them

Roughhousing: Is this a good way to play?

It’s “not cute” when dads threaten my son for dating their daughter

Why I’m never giving my kids the sex talk

Talk PANTS: The underwear rule (video)

Also, I highly recommend this book for toddlers: Amazing you! Getting smart about your private parts

4 thoughts on “From day one: bodily autonomy and consent

  1. One approach to boundaries that I love comes from my daughter’s daycare. The kids are taught from the very start to stretch out their arm, palm up and say stop (so both gesture and word) when someone does something to them that they don’t like. And they are taught to respect the stop said by others. Our daughter also applies it at home sometimes and we respect her, as adorable as her “stop mama!” or “stop papa” may sound.

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  2. Great Post! What would you say when a new caregiver or family member will watch your child, long enough that they will probably have to change their diaper, anything? Like you, as a SAHM, this does not come up that often, but I feel like I should say something brief and to the point like, ‘Aunt Jen will be taking care of you and she will help you change your diaper.’ Is that enough? Necessary?

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    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by the blog. You raise an important point. What I’ve learned from Magda Gerber’s philosophy of infant care is that the primary caregiver should always be honest, direct, and upfront with children, even babies, in regards to their care. So, to answer your question, yes, I would definitely alert your child that another caregiver will be doing x, y, and z for x amount of time. I wouldn’t warn them super in advance b/c young children do not have our ability to measure the future and past like we do, so maybe a day in advance, or even just a few hours. I actually think that’s enough. Anymore, and it might come across heavy-handed. I think most of the processing of the change in care should happen afterwards, when the child has actually experienced the change and has a concrete experience to draw from. Finally, this is an excellent example of why it’s crucial that we use proper names for all body parts so that if, God forbid, another caregiver did something inappropriate to our child, our child has the appropriate language to tell us. I hope this has been a helpful answer! 🙂

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