With everything from the #metoo movement to sexual consent practices on college campuses, the concept of body autonomy is getting its share of the limelight these days. Body autonomy isn’t just for women, and the earlier the idea can be introduced, the better.
As a parent, you might be wondering how to teach your child body autonomy? I’m so glad you’re thinking about this.
Body autonomy lessons are important for boys and girls. The concept can be introduced as early as the toddler age and reinforced throughout childhood.
Let’s dive more into how to teach your child body autonomy and get you the tips you need to raise your respectful, independent human!
This post contains some affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission if you use them (at no cost to you). Full disclosure. Tips are based on personal experience and should not be considered medical advice. Full disclaimer.
What Is Body Autonomy?
Body autonomy is a fundamental human right to be in control of your own body. Put simply, it means you get to choose what does or doesn’t happen to your body.
Body autonomy is not just about sex, though it certainly comes into play there.
Why Is It Important to Teach Your Child Body Autonomy?
No one wants anything bad to happen to their child. Children need to learn the rights they have from a trusted adult, especially what is OK and not OK when it comes to their bodies.
This is an important concept from a young age. It will help protect them throughout life, because they’ll know when to stand up for themselves.
Learning body autonomy will also help children with showing respect for others. You want your child to know it’s not acceptable to force others to do something they don’t want to do.
Through body autonomy, your child can learn to feel secure and independent in having their own choices about their bodies. They will also know boundaries about interacting with others. These lessons are meant for children of any gender.
Don’t miss my companion article on how to raise kind kids.
When Can You Start Teaching Your Child Body Autonomy?
Starting from the toddler years, you can begin promoting the concept of body autonomy. Many parents start doing this automatically, because it’s such a natural part of being kind to others.
However, sometimes our parenting behaviors can come into conflict with body autonomy, or we just might not know the right thing to do.
In this post, we’ll go over some tips on how to teach your child body autonomy for each age group.
How to Teach Your Child Body Autonomy
The toddler years are a great time to start introducing the foundations for body autonomy.
Permission for Touching
When you see your child reach out to touch another kid on the playground (they’re so curious!), you can give a gentle reminder such as:
“We should ask before we touch another person.”
“We don’t put our hands on other people without asking first.”
Model the behavior for them:
“What a sparkly sweater—may I touch it?”
“Can I help you go down the slide?”
“Can mommy have a hug?”
Toddlers have such a strong desire for independence that this permission-seeking may even help avoid some tantrums. Have you ever jumped in to help a toddler only to be met with instant rage, then realized that they wanted to try to do it themselves first?
This happened to me several times with my spirited niece, and she taught me such an important lesson!
Now I do my best to sit back and let a child try before offering assistance, which they can choose to accept or not.
This goes for things such as getting dressed to feeding.
Touch as a way of showing affection is an important part of child development, backed by science starting from infancy. I’m certainly not advocating for you to stop hugging or cuddling your child—they need this from you.
However, you can start to keep an eye out for cues if your child is not into touch at the moment. Different children have different physical needs for touch.
They might not want to be held by someone unknown to them, for example, and it’s good to start to notice and respect their wishes. We’ll talk more about this.
Respect for other people’s bodies is just as important a lesson as sharing for young children.
Whenever you’re able to, allow your child to have choice when it comes to their bodies. Choosing their own clothes is a great way to do this.
Give them access to a variety of clothes that are appropriate for the season and let them decide what to wear. It might just make your life easier by taking away a potential battle over clothing.
Does it really natter if they want to wear their favorite pajamas to the grocery store?
Other examples include, “would you like mommy to give you a pony tail today?”
Of course, as parents we realize there may be times when offering choice just isn’t an option, due to reasons of safety, health, or just plain old impracticality. I get it.
You can’t have your child running through the street because they felt like it.
When you must do something, an explanation can help, such as, “I need to put some diaper cream on your bottom, because it’s sore.”
Or, “I need to help you get your shoes on so we can get to school on time.”
The point is to be more mindful about offering choice to respect your child’s body autonomy whenever possible. You’re respecting their personhood, even though they’re little. This may look a little different for each family.
Preschool to School Age
For preschoolers on up, you can keep up the practices you’ve already started as well as adding some extra lessons that explain the concepts behind bodily autonomy.
Tell your child how they are they the boss of their own body, and what this means. Some families like using the phrase, “my body, my choice.” It’s powerful and to the point!
Your child needs to know they have control when it comes to their body. You’re laying the foundations for understanding consent.
Because our bodies are our own, we all have a personal “bubble.” It’s our own personal space where we feel comfortable.
Others need to be invited into the bubble, and you shouldn’t go into someone else’s bubble without asking.
Teaching your children about each person’s personal space is important for the concept of consent and can help them greatly in interpersonal interactions. They’ll have better respect for personal boundaries, including those of friends, family members, and strangers.
Appropriate and Inappropriate Touching
Sure, it’s not a fun talk to have, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided.
Parents should teach young kids about their body parts and explain how certain parts are private. These lessons are part of being safe and growing up.
Touching that’s needed and OK includes touching for cleaning by parents or examination from doctors. They’ll need to know that they should speak up if they ever feel uncomfortable about touching.
Sadly, child sexual abuse still happens today. These important lessons on bodily autonomy will help empower the young child to say “Stop!” or speak up to a trusted adult if they are ever touched inappropriately.
Children’s Books About Body Autonomy
Body autonomy can be a tricky subject for parents. How do you explain concepts like consent to a young child, especially if you’re not ready to have a big talk about sex?
Books by childhood educators and experts can help introduce body autonomy in an appropriate way for this age group. Recommended books for how to teach your child body autonomy include:
- My Body! What I Say Goes!
- No Means No!
- Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect
- Don’t Touch My Hair!
- Miles is the Boss of His Body
More Body Choices
I think preschool age is a good time to start allowing kids choice in their hairstyle. Before that, kids don’t really seem to care or notice much.
Start asking if they’d like to get a haircut or how they’d like their hair to look, and then respect their wishes.
“It’s your hair. It’s up to you,” is what I tell my kids.
Offer your children a variety of healthy foods, then respect their choices about what they put in their body and when they’re full.
This goes such a long way in setting up healthy eating behaviors for a lifetime, and it’s part of showing respect for their body.
There’s a great article with more details on gentle parenting with food, including encouraging phrases to use (as well as what not to say).
As I mentioned earlier, follow your parenting instincts to shower your child with affection through physical touch in their younger years. But never force your child to show physical affection to someone.
Even if you know how much it would warm grandma’s heart to get a big hug, your child may not be into it, and that’s OK. Recognize if your child is uncomfortable and don’t force the issue.
Perhaps try a high five or blowing a kiss instead.
Tweens and Teens
When it comes to tweens and teens, by now, you should have laid down a great foundation about bodily autonomy. Now you’ll be ready to incorporate the concept of consent into talks about the birds and the bees.
It’s the perfect time for these discussions as they’re starting to develop their sexuality. No matter how uncomfortable, these conversations will better prepare your child for romantic and sexual encounters that they will experience in life.
Respect for body autonomy all comes down to the fundamentals about choice, also known as consent.
When in a relationship or having a romantic encounter, you don’t get any extra rights to the other person’s body. Their body is still their own, and you need permission (consent) for touch, no matter how strong the feelings involved.
You should never convince someone to do something they don’t want to with their body. This type of touching should be wanted, never forced.
Avoid lecturing your teen but instead look for times when you can start a conversation around scenarios or examples you’ve seen together.
The goal isn’t just about avoiding sexual abuse—it should be about having healthy relationships. One day soon, your child will be a young woman or man, and these lessons can make a difference in their romantic interactions.
Teaching about body autonomy can seem so simple at times and be so hard in others. The practice of giving children such power over their bodies, rather than ownership by their parents, has not always been the way in society. Yet children are human beings who have fundamental rights.
There may be cultural differences that add complexity.
If you receive judgment from your family over how you choose to parent, the best advice I can give you is to stand firm in your decision. You know what is right for your child.
Sometimes you may second guess yourself. Should you really let your son grow his hair out? What if he gets picked on? My advice is to respect your child’s choices about their body whenever possible. You’re sending an important message and teaching through example.
You might have to stop and think about whether the situation should involve letting the child be the boss of their own body before you react.
There may be situations when rules override the choice we might normally allow. An example is school uniforms. In these cases, you’ll have to do some explaining to your child.
Also, we all mess up sometimes. If you realize later that you didn’t respect your child’s body autonomy, or they call you out on it, fess up.
Maybe you got carried away and wrestled with your child without realizing they weren’t into it. Set an example by admitting your mistake.
Not all of the behaviors we reviewed are automatic. They will take self-discipline as a parent.
You can use any mistakes as a conversation point with your child. What should you have done differently?
You can get more parenting advice on how to teach your child body autonomy in the book, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children — From Infancy To Middle School.
You’re doing the right thing by looking into how to teach your child body autonomy. It won’t happen overnight, but I hope I’ve shown you there are steps you can take from an early age to set a healthy foundation.
Have you had any struggles or successes in teaching your child body autonomy? Share in the comments!