Encouraging body autonomy in children— Why is it so important?

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. 
-Nelson Mandela

How are we treating our children, or the children we care for? Are we speaking kindly to them? Are we making sure they are clothed? Making sure they have nutritious food to eat?

One aspect of caregiving that often falls by the wayside is teaching children how to be human beings. 

We forget about that a lot, don’t we? We fall into the trap of thinking of our children as miniature extensions of ourselves. This leads to a mindset where we treat them the way we were treated as children. Because we all turned out just fine, didn’t we?

Listen. It is more clear than ever in today’s political climate that times are changing. We are not living in the same world that we lived in 50 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago. 

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It’s a different world

Society changes at an exponential rate. That can bring about some unpleasant feelings. After all, change is scary, and often humbling. However, it is changing. If we do not grow and change with it, that is our choice. But we will unfortunately get left behind. 

We will be written about in the darker pages of history books as a generation that refused to adapt. Refused to think for ourselves. 

This is a topic I feel very strongly about. I firmly believe that our primary task as parents, apart from providing basic care to our children, is to teach them what it means to be human. 

It is teaching them independence. 

It is teaching them empathy.

Teaching them responsibility. 

Teaching them the way that relationships ought to work. 

It is teaching them bodily autonomy. 

Encouraging body autonomy in children

What is bodily autonomy?

Bodily autonomy is defined as the right to self governance over one’s own body without external influence or coercion. It is generally considered to be a fundamental human right. Bodily autonomy relates to the concept of affirmative consent, which requires full and eager participation in any sexual encounter.” 

Let’s break this down into separate concepts. 

  • The right to self governance over one’s own body. Our bodies are ours. They are not our partner’s, or our parent’s, or a stranger’s. Because of this, we have a right to dictate the way in which we are touched. 
  • Without external influence or coercion. We have a right to this of our own volition. It doesn’t not count as autonomy if a loved one or stranger manipulates you into consenting to be touched. Manipulation is not love, and it is not consent. 
  • It is generally considered to be a fundamental human right. The only requirement for earning this privilege of bodily autonomy is that we were born and now exist. That’s it. 
  • The concept of affirmative consent. This is especially important. It is not consent if someone cannot, or feels pressure not to, explicitly say YES to the invitation to be touched. 
  • Full and eager participation. For physical contact to be appropriate, it involves the full and eager participation of all parties. 

So, what is the proper formula for bodily autonomy?

(Our body – Coercion) + Basic right acknowledgement + (Saying YES – Assumed Consent)= Appropriate touching

Or something like that. I was not a math major. 

Why is it so important?

Why does it matter? And why is it a topic that comes up so much now? After all, like I mentioned earlier, we were not raised that way. (I am a millennial, and this especially applies to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers also.)

Not that parents in my generation (and previous ones) meant any harm by this viewpoint. That’s just the way things were. Kids were theirs, and they had the right to raise them as they saw fit. 

But society is shifting with every passing day. We are moving away from the viewpoint of children being our possessions, and moving toward thinking this: Children are humans. 

If you go out for drinks with friends, and a guy at the bar gets grabby with you, you do not enjoy that do you? I bet not.  It’s creepy and weird. 

That’s because we are human beings, and enjoy touch that is pleasing to us. Part of what makes touch pleasing is that it is wanted. Unwanted touch does not stir up those same positive feelings. 

That is why it is so important to model bodily autonomy in our own lives. Our children are watching. They are constantly learning by seeing how we interact with others. They often carry these lessons into adulthood, if we are not proactive. 

What do we need to do for our own sake?

First, we need to practice bodily autonomy in our own lives. We are the clay that our children use to shape their own adulthood. They work it through their hands until it becomes whatever shape they deem appropriate. 

How do they know what is appropriate?

They watch adults, especially their parents. 

Apart from the messages we send about consent to our children through these instances of inappropriate touching, we also deserve autonomy for our own sake. 

Physical touch can be a nice way to show love. In fact, it is one of the five love languages. Let’s talk about that for a minute. 

Oxytocin and its benefits

Oxytocin is a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. … In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both genders. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity.” 

Oxytocin is a chemical that bonds us to others. This is why doctors recommend skin to skin contact after a baby’s born. It helps them bond to their parent quicker. 

That is also why physical touch can be so pleasing. It releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy. 

Obviously, it should go without saying that this is only true for touch that is desired

It feels good to hug a spouse after a long day at work, or enjoy a kiss after a nice date. Or to hold hands while watching a movie. 

Before we can teach bodily autonomy to our children, we need to practice it ourselves. 

Modeling bodily autonomy

What are some ways you can practice bodily autonomy, thus demonstrating it for your children?

I think an important first step is to discuss it with your partner(s).  Tell them the kinds of things that make you uncomfortable and make sure everyone is on the same page. Ask them ways you can make touch a more comfortable experience for them. 

If you think it’s appropriate for their age, you can even involve the children in this discussion. Let them listen to you respectfully tell your partner your boundaries, and let them listen to you ask your partner for theirs. 

This models proper boundary setting for children. 

Encouraging body autonomy in children

Encouraging bodily autonomy in children

Now that we know why bodily autonomy is so important for adults, let’s direct the conversation back to our little (and not so little anymore) ones. 

I don’t think there is a wrong age to start introducing this concept. If you are a parent of older kids, it is not too late!

How to get started 

With little ones, start off by asking them if you can have a hug or a kiss instead of just doing it. I will admit, this is such a hard one for me. My kids are so adorable, and I find myself constantly wanting to hug and kiss the stuffing out of them. Despite that, it is really important. 

Why? It teaches little ones that the privilege of touch is just that— a privilege. It is no one’s right to touch you.

If you are a parent who loves hugs and kisses have no fear! I’ve found that since being better about respecting my kids‘ boundaries, they have been volunteering those hugs and kisses left and right! They are learning that touch is on their own terms, and I hope that is a lesson they carry with them. 

For parents of not so little ones who never discussed this and would like to start, remember: my blog is a judgment free zone. (Unless you’re like, committing a crime. Then GTFO.) Honestly, I share my opinions and research about things that I find current and important in the mental health community, and I always hope it stimulates a discussion. 

If you are late to the game, it’s totally fine. You got this. Sit your older kids down and have a discussion about why bodily autonomy is important. Don’t forget— ask their opinions. Make them a part of the dialogue. 

my body is special book, body autonomy

Why is bodily autonomy so important?

These teaching moments are endlessly beneficial. I truly believe that modeling bodily autonomy can have the following benefits for your children. 

  • It can help keep them safe in the future
  • It teaches them independence 
  • Bodily autonomy teaches them bravery and self-confidence
  • It shows them how healthy adult relationships are supposed to be 
  • It shows them that you truly respect them
  • Also, it helps your overall communication as a parent-child unit. 

A child even knowing one of these six benefits is changed forever and for the better. Close your eyes and imagine your child as an adult. What do you see?

Do they cower behind social convention, afraid to speak their mind in relationships, and lacking in self-esteem?

I have two biologically female children, and when I close my eyes and picture them as adults, here is my biggest wish:

My children walk into the room, their heads held high. They don’t live in anxiety and social fear like I have for a long time. They are safe. Their partners cherish them and respect them. Most importantly, they love themselves. Inside and out. 

That is why I teach bodily autonomy. 

Related blog post: Raising Happy Children

Help your children be safe and happy

As parents, we make a common mistake. Hell, I have made it in the past. 

Do you know what it is?

We erroneously equate touch with love.

Like I said before, physical touch is a nice way to show love and appreciation for a partner or child. It is how we as humans feel biologically inclined to love each other. 

We love big old hugs, and kisses on the forehead, and holding hands, and high fives, and shoulder rubs. 

But touch is not love. Love is a larger concept than I, or anyone else, could ever describe. It’s not something that could ever be distilled into a single principle like “Hug your child more.”

Love is complex. 

It is wonderful. 

It makes the world go round. 

Encouraging body autonomy in children
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But touching in and of itself is not love. It is a byproduct of a healthy, respectful relationship. Kids not wanting touch does not mean they do not love you. 

They love you to the moon and back. But they are not yours. Even for the woefully short time they are small. They are theirs. They belong to the universe. Our children belong to themselves. 

Share your thoughts in the comments! I would love to hear them.

Remember, bodily autonomy teaches kids to be humans.


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16 thoughts on “Encouraging body autonomy in children— Why is it so important?”

  1. I so agree with the importance of this topic – so many conflicts could be avoided, conversations enhanced and relationships built if we could all be a bit more “human” and good human being to each other

  2. This is SO important. I feel like our message to children is often complicated and mixed up – encouraging them to embrace body autonomy, but only when we say it’s okay… Like hug that family member because we say so BUT know that it’s okay to say we’re not comfortable. Teaching this from a young age is key.

  3. Very interesting post. One that has me thinking about how I act myself. I agree with what you say, but I also know that I do carry on sometimes when the kids say no to tickle. Only for a few seconds, but I guess that’s enough.

    1. It’s a heavy topic! And a lot of times, people really don’t have bad intentions. Just something good to think about. Thanks for reading!

  4. I grew up in a home where it was expected to hug family and friends regardless if we wanted to or not. I was also taught that ‘boys will be boys and that is ok’.
    As a mom of 2 boys and 2 girls we discuss body autonomy often and how to respect our bodies and request respect from others.

    1. That’s great! Sounds like you are trying to do some really positive stuff. Keep it up. Thanks for reading!

  5. Great post and certainly helpful for someone who wants to, someday, have their own kids. As a current non-parent, I haven’t really thought much about this but you’ve certainly opened my eyes. Not only to the way I will parent, but also how I interact with my nieces.

  6. For me – it’s been learning when tickling is okay or not okay – recognising that if she says “no”, it’s my responsibility to respect no, rather than tickling so that she learns that she has every right to respect!

  7. This is so well written and about such an important topic! I was definitely brought up in a household where, as a child, I was forced to hug and kiss friends of my parents or family members I had never met before. It’s not until now as a grown up that I realize how wrong that is. Children are humans and learning that they are in control of their body and who does or doesn’t touch it is so important! It’s the first step of teaching consent at a young age. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thank you for the kind words! It is so prevalent, and is probably mostly not done without harm in mind. That’s why it’s so important to talk about it. Thanks for reading!

  8. Youre such a good mother. I cant count how many adults (especially men) who wouldn’t take no for an answer when I was a child. We should all raise our kids with a good understanding of consent and bodily autonomy

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