You Need to Give Me Some Space: Body Autonomy from an Early Age

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One sunny, cold winter morning, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I met up with some new friends for an outdoor playdate. Naturally, the kids were overflowing with excitement at the prospect of meeting someone new. Energy was high, and the kids all ran around wildly at first, racing each other as they began testing the waters of a new friendship. After they started settling into one another a bit, one of the new friends became a little more curious. Bubbly and friendly, he just wanted to hug and put an arm around his new friend.

But it wasn’t met with reciprocation. Instead, when it happened, my daughter told him, “You need to give me some space.” He didn’t immediately respond, but with prompting from his parent, he eventually did. The whole interaction happened again, except this time, our new friend was visibly frustrated and likely feeling a bit of rejection (after all, he was simply being friendly in his own way). He took out his frustration by throwing some dirt in my daughter’s direction. She watched him, processing everything that was happening, and then walked away.

My heart felt sad for our new little friend – his personality was so immediately welcoming to others, wanting to give hugs and be close to a new friend. But also, I was happy to have just witnessed my daughter stand her ground on protecting her body autonomy when she wasn’t ready for someone new to be touching her. Over the course of the morning, I heard her tell her new friend “No, don’t do that,” a couple times when he would try to hold her hand or put an arm around her. She still wanted to play with him, race him, and mimic the things that he was doing (like throwing stones and sticks into the pond), but she was adamant that she wasn’t ready for her new friend to be inside her personal space.

As a parent, I could see confirmation that we’re on a successful path to teaching our daughter that her body is hers – she is in charge of it, and she doesn’t have to accept when others touch her without her permission. She deserves this kind of respect because, after all, she’s a person, too – just a little one!

As an adolescent and even as a full-grown adult, I absolutely wish I had possessed the same kind of confidence in my body autonomy that I witnessed in my toddler. I have vivid memories of uncomfortable experiences being touched when I didn’t want to be – mostly on dates when a hand would be placed on the small of my back, or an arm draped around my shoulder, or being kissed without consent. All of this I allowed to pass in the moment because I didn’t understand that it was acceptable to simply say no. While my parents were loving and caring, the culture of consent had never been established in my house, and the uncomfortable experiences that I endured as a young woman are still with me because of it.

I don’t want my child to suffer through these same kinds of experiences, and even more than this, I don’t want her to suffer worse experiences while believing it’s okay because adults are the ones who govern her body. Body autonomy grows through respecting your children’s bodies as their own and as something that they control – from the little, repetitive interactions to the big ones. What does this look like in action?

For example, instead of setting the expectation that your children should always give you kisses or always accept when you want to kiss them, you can simply ask them if it’s okay with words like “Can I have a kiss?” If they turn away from you, you can let them know that their choice is just fine. You can reassure them that it doesn’t matter if they don’t want to show you affection in that moment by saying, “Okay, that’s alright. I always love you.” If you feel a little hurt, try to shift your point of view – think about how you would feel if someone was laying kisses on you all the time without your permission, maybe while you’re focusing hard on something or when you’re feeling tired and grumpy. Sometimes, we just don’t want to have someone else – even a loved one – in our personal space. It does not mean we love them any less, just that we are respecting our own current needs.

An example to follow this revolves around compulsory hugging. Instead of obliging a grandparent’s desire for a hug when saying hello or goodbye, allow your kids to decide if that’s something they want as well. If grandparents (or other family members or friends) have established a good connection with your kids, chances are that your children will want to hug their grandparents. Or maybe not – for example, sometimes growing feels awkward and adolescents unsure of their bodies might not want others in their space while they’re still getting to know themselves. Creating a culture of consent can be difficult when others don’t understand why you don’t force your children to show obligatory love through hugging, but you can try to establish other goodbye rituals for your children to choose from that create a connection with others while still respecting your children’s body autonomy. Maybe a high five, or a special wave or goodbye handshake reserved only for Nana and Papa. If your family doesn’t understand, you can let them know that you’ve been talking about body autonomy, and you would really appreciate their help in furthering your teachings about body respect by asking if they can have a hug and moving on from there if the answer is no. Respecting your child’s choice to not give hugs helps to establish that they are in control of who touches their body as well as that their feelings are not minimal in comparison to the convention of giving hello/goodbye hugs.

Another example – one we might not think of because of how it seems innocent and fun – is tickling beyond when your child says stop. Instead of tickling your kids to get that out-of-control laughter, stop when they say no. I remember when I was little, parents and older cousins would tickle me until I was blue in the face from laughing. I certainly was laughing, but that didn’t mean I was enjoying it. Instead of making it clear that I did not like it and did not feel like I was in control of my own body, I simply accepted it as what was normal. For my daughter, we love to do tickling. But when she says stop, we stop immediately. Often times, she’ll take a breather for a second, sometimes even blocking us with her hands, but then a grin creeps up on her face and she yells, “Again!” By doing this, we’re letting her know that she is in control of her body, and that it’s okay to say “give me some space,” and establishing that she sets the boundaries for being touched in this intimate way.

Sometimes, there are things we have to do for health and hygiene purposes, like changing diapers and washing during bath time. Respecting our children’s bodies still applies, but we can give our children the time to consider these essential events. We can narrate for them the things we’re doing, or create a routine that they rely on so they simply know what comes next. We can tell them “I need to do X, Y, Z” (change your diaper, clean your bottom) and you can tell them why (so it stays clean, doesn’t get itchy, etc.). You can give them a pause to process and comply, and if they don’t, then try adding a little more patience and gentleness with your touches. You can try to connect with them by offering them a choice where it doesn’t matter if they say “no”. So for example, tell them “I’m going to change your diaper now” – you aren’t asking because it’s a necessity for hygiene. But then you could add, “Do you want to hold the diaper (or a wipe, or the cream)?” If they still won’t comply, try making it fun – for little ones you could make it into a body part naming game, or for older toddlers you could try doing it as fast as possible to make it feel more exciting. Sometimes giving them a choice is possible, such as with toddlers learning to clean themselves in the tub. I often ask my daughter if she wants to wash herself, if she just wants to hold the soap to put on the rag, or if maybe she just wants to splash. Involving her in this way reinforces her feelings of being in charge of her own body even during times when I can’t give her the choice of saying no for health and hygiene reasons.

All I can do is hope that she takes what she’s learned so far and keeps building on it, continuing to defend her body and her space as she grows older instead of thinking that she just has to accept when someone comes into her personal space (as I did when I was younger, often making me feel uncomfortable and insecure). My ultimate goal is to raise a child who is confident and secure in saying “give me some space,” and in the fact that her body is hers, and hopefully this kind of autonomy will allow confidence and respect to filter into other aspects of her life. As we all do, I hope these simple teachings blossom a healthy future for my child.

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