The importance of self-expression, consent and bodily autonomy for our children.
“I want freedom for the full expression of my personality.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Allowing and supporting our children to be themselves, without conditions and expectations, is the fundamental pillar of our parenting. We want them to know we respect their choices, we believe in them and that we will always love them unconditionally. A huge part of this is about respecting their autonomy; their body, their choice. As parents we believe we don’t have the right to dictate to them over any aspect of their body, we do not own our children, they are their own individual people who deserve the freedom to express themselves in whatever form this may take. We believe that it is of utmost importance for our children as they grow into adults that they are given the control over their own bodies, and the decisions they make are respected. But unfortunately the rest of society hasn’t quite caught up yet.
Ava is an 8 year old girl. Do you know what 8 year old girls like to wear? If you looked around the shops it would be pink, sparkly, tight, unicorn, emoji or slogan emblazoned clothes. Well Ava doesn’t like any of those things. She likes baggy clothes in comfy fabrics that she can climb in, she hates pink, and won’t wear glitter or sequins because she’s hot on the plastic crisis and is worried they’ll wash into the waterways in the washing machine.
We recently went into a well known high street stores children’s section. Ava approached the shop assistant;
“Excuse me, do you have any dinosaur clothes?”
“Um yes follow me, we have this.” The shop assistant handed Ava a purple t-shirt with a sparkly pink T. rex on the front.
“Thank you, but dinosaurs weren’t pink.” Ava replied.
The shop assistant looked a tad awkward, then Bonnie spotted a green dinosaur t-shirt in the boys section. “Here’s one Ava”,
“Oh no that’s a boys one” the shop assistant replied.
“It’s a just a dinosaur one” said Ava confused. We found her size and bought the t shirt, from the boys section!
But I ended up feeling how I always feel after clothes shopping, frustrated. Frustrated that girls stuff is pink and bright, and boys stuff is blue and dull. Frustrated that there is even a girls/boys section. Why can’t it just be clothes for all kids. Frustrated that we are still battling stereotypes and fitting children in boxes from such an early age. But mostly frustrated that Ava left the shop feeling wrong for being a girl and wanting to wear a dinosaur t shirt that wasn’t pink and sparkly.
We had a similar encounter when shopping for trainers for Bonnie. We had her feet measured then the shop assistant asked me what styles I liked. So I turned to Bonnie and asked her which ones she liked. She picked some mustard yellow and black spotty trainers. “They’re from the boys section” the shop assistant said to me, ignoring Bonnie. I just replied that Bonnie could choose the trainers she liked. Turns out they didn’t have that particular style in her size, so the assistant went into the back to find some shoes they had in her size. She returned with a few boxes, all containing pink shoes, and proceeded to ask me which ones I preferred. I again had to reply that it was Bonnie’s choice.
The assistant was so put out, it made me a little cross, but I don’t blame her for it. Childism is so engrained in our society people don’t even notice they’re being disrespectful, we are conditioned to believe that adults hold all the power.
It’s like when we go to the hairdressers and they ask me how the girls would like their hair cut, and I then proceed to ask the girls. The hairdresser always seems confused. I realise we’re the exception, that most parents do make these decisions for their children, it’s normal to treat children this way. But imagine how you would feel if someone else made every decision about your body for you, if you couldn’t decide how to dress, or how to wear you hair. You’d feel pretty powerless right? Then I remember that is the goal, to make children feel powerless. People who feel powerless tend not to question anything or fight back.
I realise that it is difficult to understand how giving your child full bodily autonomy works when children need to do something like brush their teeth, or brush their hair, or in a medical situation. But in real life its actually simple. We just talk to them. We explain why we brush our teeth, shower, brush our hair, wash our hands, and what happens if we don’t. Once they understand that they are doing something that benefits them and makes them feel healthy they tend to get on board.
A recent example of autonomy in a medical situation was last week when we needed to get our travel vaccinations. Ava was really worried and didn’t want to get them done. We gave her plenty of advanced notice, talked to her about why we needed them and, most importantly, we reassured her that it’s ok to feel worried and that it may hurt a little. Obviously in an extreme medical situation (because someone will inevitably ask) we would have to override their autonomy, but this would be done as respectfully as possible.
Ava has anxiety, loud noises, crowds and new situations are one of her triggers. She likes to wear her wooly hat, it is her comfort blanket and is one of the tools that helps her feel less anxious in social situations. She told me it makes her feel hidden, she wears it from the minute she wakes until the moment she sleeps. It is almost an extension of her being. But, my goodness, the amount of times people comment on it, touch it, pull it off her head, mock her for wearing it. It is always done in a light hearted manner, in jest. But it really hurts Ava and is an invasion of her space. You would never approach an adult, pull off an article of clothing and laugh about it. How weird and inappropriate would that be? It saddens me that people treat children this way without even realising how wrong it is.
Likewise when people force children to cuddle and kiss. Imagine being in a social situation and people are telling you to kiss and cuddle someone you don’t feel comfortable kissing and cuddling. You can see where I’m going with this. You’re not teaching children to be affectionate, you’re teaching them that consent doesn’t matter and that their body is not their own to make decisions about. This can lead to some pretty toxic thoughts and feelings in later life.
Our daughters like to wear clothes that reflects the things they like and feel comfy, boys or girls they don’t care. Why should anyone else?
We’re hoping that by modelling respectful parenting and giving our girls the freedom to express themselves however they please we can raise strong, confident humans who will respect others choices too.
Respect is always the key. It’s not too much to ask for really, is it?