Life is built on a foundation of choices, some big, some small, but all integral to the people we become. Which is why it’s important to not only pick the stuff you want to consent to but also be aware and say no to things you don’t. The lessons begin early and are often subliminal.
Want to raise an independent, confident child? Begin by teaching them the value of saying no. No to the uncle or aunt who want a cuddle; no to the friend who wants to play a game they don’t want to; no to the party they don’t want to go to. It’s all part of becoming an autonomous adult.
Indian mum-of-two Jia Lokwani, who is based in the UAE, says: “In my family, it’s simple. I never, ever suggest to my kids that they should hug, kiss, high five, or touch another person in any way. If a grandparent or friend is leaving, I don’t prompt my children to do anything. I say goodbye in the way that is natural and comfortable for myself and the other person, and I allow my children to do the same.
“Since I never attempt to prompt my children to hug, kiss, etc., it isn’t often that a family member or friend will ask for a sign of affection from my children, which is great! However, when it does happen, I simply turn to my child and say, ‘you don’t have to’. It’s always for them to decide. This may come off as rude to some and that’s really unfortunate.”
What is body autonomy? Why is it important?
Arfa Banu Khan, Clinical Psychologist, Aster Jubilee Medical Complex, Bur Dubai, explains: “Body autonomy is defined as power and agency a person has over their body and future, without violence or coercion. In other words, all people - including children – have the right to live free from physical acts, such as touch to which they do not consent.”
Parents should be sensitive to the power difference (age, size, height, authority and dependence) and the extra weight this gives to that which we tell our children to do, and whether our communication is giving them the message that they have the right to say no.
“Remember,” says Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic, Child and Adult Mental Health, “…there's a big difference between saying to the child ‘give me a hug!’and ‘would you like a hug?’, or commanding, ‘give grandad a big kiss’. Parents should be sensitive to the power difference (age, size, height, authority and dependence) and the extra weight this gives to that which we tell our children to do, and whether our communication is giving them the message that they have the right to say no.”
In my family, it’s simple. I never, ever suggest to my kids that they should hug, kiss, high five, or touch another person in any way.
Junk the shame
Those who feel in greater control of their bodies and behaviour are also at less risk of being taken advantage of. “Children need to be given the clear message from the beginning of their life that their body is their body. They need to be taught about the different parts of their body including their private parts as early as two-and-a-half years old, which is when they begin to make sense of the world around them. They should also be educated on the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch,” says John.
The reason why this conversation will help, explains Banu Khan, is that removing any shame regarding genitals allows children to be more confident and comfortable in their own bodies, and enables them to tell the difference when something doesn’t feel right. They need to be able to trust their own instincts.
It’s your choice
UK expat Gemma Plowman says, “I am a huge believer in teaching children about body autonomy. I always explain to my little ones that they never have to do anything that they are not comfortable with - whether that’s a hug to a family member or a friend in school joking around. They have the power to choose and to be in control.”
For Plowman, it’s the little moments that make a huge difference. “I have always used the phrase ‘no means no’ with both my son and daughter when playing. If one of them doesn’t want to play something anymore then they have that choice to step away from the situation and the other person needs to respect that decision,” she tells Gulf News.
I always explain to my little ones that they never have to do anything that they are not comfortable with - whether that’s a hug to a family member or a friend in school joking around. They have the power to choose and to be in control.
Recently, Canadian Instagram user and mum-of-two Dana Alqinneh told us that even something as simple as dressing up – for events such as Halloween – can become moments of teaching body autonomy. She explained: “As tempting as it is to want to dress our children ourselves in the cutest, latest or trendiest characters, introducing body autonomy is so important. Body autonomy isn’t just about teaching children about consent, asking for permission to touch others or being 100 per cent comfortable before hugging or high fiving anyone. It also includes getting a say in what you wear – giving them control over their bodies and what goes on it.”
Clothes make a difference
Kids are cute and dressed up even more so, but it is important that their confidence levels are boosted by what they wear and not demolished by it. Here’s how you can help them claim that power. Banu Khan suggests that parents examine their ideas about ‘appropriate clothing’ and talk to the kids about it. It’s important not to let your own pre-conceived notions of what a child should dress like cloud their judgement.
Make it easy for kids to access their clothes and allow them to take the time to pick out what they really want to wear.
Secondly, make it easy for kids to access their clothes and allow them to take the time to pick out what they really want to wear.
“Let the kids choose their own clothes when you go shopping,” adds Banu Khan.
It may not be an easy change to make – it can get upsetting when your child bellows no at an outfit you love or at their loving ready-to-hug grandparents, but after some growing pains, things will settle. It’s just one of those things where actions speak louder than words.
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