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It’s my body: Why children need to learn about bodily autonomy

How do we teach our children that their body is their body when there are times we just need them to comply with us so that we can keep their body safe? Laura Borrowdale finds there’s no easy answer – but it’s a discussion we need to have.

One of my mother’s key pieces of parenting advice was to “pick your battles”. She meant that you should let some of the little things slide so you can save your energy for the parenting that counts.

It’s good advice, but hard to take in the moment. When you’re running on no sleep, and your hormones from breastfeeding are up and down, small things can seem and become momentous. And your desire to look after your children properly becomes the very reason that you don’t.

This is the reason, not the excuse, that one of my worst parenting moments featured me crouching over a prone toddler on the floor.  I’ve pinned her arms to her sides with my knees, both of us were crying and there’s a foaming toothbrush clutched in my desperate hand.

Of course, half an hour earlier, I had been a completely different parent. A rational one. One who knew that my daughter wouldn’t die if she didn’t brush her teeth, even if this was the second night in a row that she skipped. I’d asked nicely, offered choices,  promised rewards, threatened consequences. But somehow none of my arsenal worked, and this had become the battle I’d picked. Finally, I was down to physical force… there’s nothing like the height and weight advantage being a grown up gives you to help you win against a two year old.

It’s the shameful memory of that evening and the weepy bedtime that followed (for me, not her), that has made me think more about the line we tread as parents. Where is the line between our responsibility for a child’s physical care, and the need to respect their bodily autonomy?

I tell my daughters that every person has the right to and deserves bodily autonomy. My daughters are used to me telling them that it is their body, and that they are the only ones who get to choose what happens to it. It’s a message I believe wholeheartedly. It’s a message I wish that I had demonstrated better; that my need to protect their teeth, to fill them with vegetables and to dress them warmly, didn’t mean that I overrode their wishes or coerce their consent.

I’ve spent a few years teaching gender studies in a high school, and the first year I taught it, I told the students that one in five women would suffer from sexual assault or rape.

In the front of the room, I ticked off with my fingers… me, my mum, my step-mother, my two daughters. Which of us would it be? I was trying to emphasise to my students how prevalent sexual violence is, that none of us are untouched by this.

It wasn’t til later that I realised that this reckoning only took into account future assaults.

That the sexual assaults that had happened to me, in which I did not choose what happened to my body, were ones that I’d failed to see them for what they were because I didn’t believe enough in my right to my own body.

When our lawyers are using as a defense that ‘begrudging consent’ (the Scott Kuggeleijn defence) is still consent, the need for children to have the right to, and the knowledge of the right to, their own body is vital.

There are many advocates for giving children choices around their physicality such as not requiring them to kiss or hug people they are reluctant to, whether that’s Grandma, one of their siblings or the stranger at the supermarket.

And this is absolutely as it should be.

But showing affection is a choice that will not have an impact on their health and wellbeing. There are obvious examples of when parental force is necessary. In that difficult stage between infant compliance (if you were lucky enough) and pre-school rationality (again, luck dependent), there’s a part when physical force is sometimes the easiest way forward. The screaming child is hauled into the car, the toy is pulled out of their hands and their mother, weeping with exhaustion, straddles them on the floor to brush their teeth.

Small children often do not make rational choices, and parents must frequently step into that role. Four minutes of tooth brushing a day is a hard ask for someone who doesn’t know or care that their future self will thank them.

No one would argue that you should let a toddler wander off onto the road without physically restraining them, but does the need or right to physically contain children interfere with the message that their body is theirs?

And which message is stronger in the long run? ‘Because you have to’ or ‘because I want to’?

Laura Borrowdale is a mother, teacher, and editor of Aotearotica.

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