In the Blog
Cross-post: body sovereignty and other concepts I’m finding helpful
This post originally appears at word spur.
With all the news of child abuse and violence around children during my pregnancy and since the birth of my child, I’ve thought a lot – worried a lot – about how to keep children safe without teaching them to fear people they don’t know, without scaring them and robbing them of the carefree play that so needs to characterize childhood. I’ve read and thought a lot about safety, about how to raise children to know that their bodies are theirs and theirs alone, to raise them to be kind, compassionate and to speak out when they feel unsafe, to know that they’ll be supported, and to not be bystanders when they witness unkind behaviour or assault.
I’ve read a lot about it. And wish I had written this post earlier to keep track of all the excellent pieces I’ve come across.
The concept of body sovereignty has been a really good starting point for reflections on parenting : to wrap my head around what it means to care for the body of an infant who can’t feed, clean, move, or dress himself. To be conscious of power dynamics that maybe aren’t a huge deal now – he needs me to wipe his bum, no ifs, ands or buts about it – but that will come up sooner than I anticipate as kiddo builds up his independence and know-how. Liz Joynt Sandberg writes:
I temper the impossible coexistence of trying to convince Ida that she is the only one in charge of her body with the fact that I am sometimes in charge of her body. I explain that it’s okay for a mom or dad or babysitter to be in charge of a little kid’s body to keep them safe. And of course this is true. It has to be true. But I watch as this explanation does absolutely nothing to keep the look of utter betrayal from washing over Ida’s face as I force her body to safety against her will. She knows in the deepest way that she either is or is not in charge of her body. I hear all the time that kids are wildly illogical. I beg to differ. They are the strictest of logicians. Ida knows that something is wrong - that both A and not A cannot be true simultaneously. And I know it too.
body sovereignty - (that is, not touching or holding on to a child ever if they say “no” or “stop” [ok, yes, in life threatening situations like when they’re about to run out on the road], even when play-fighting or hugging them, and dare I say it, even during nappy change struggles if at all possible … this allows them to develop a sense of ownership over their own body and the rightful expectation that they should never be touched against their will and that someone who loves them will respect their decisions…)
The importance of naming body parts by their real names, and foregoing all the talk of “down there” that tends to obscure and inadvertently shame our bodies. Being able to name vaginas, penises and vulvas means being able to talk about them: to teach that “private parts” are private in that they’re off limits to others, and to give children the vocabulary to talk about experiences and gut feelings that they have – to be better equipped to ask questions, to care for their own bodies and to name and report abuse. I still haven’t been able to find a children’s book that names all of our body parts - that is, that doesn’t skip those parts between our knees to belly buttons.
Naming and being able to talk to kids about their changing bodies and about sex means being able to talk about consent. This post discusses ways of introducing the concept with wee kiddos – an empowering read. For example:
Never force a child to hug, touch or kiss anybody, for any reason. If Grandma is demanding a kiss, and your child is resistant, offer alternatives by saying something like, “Would you rather give Grandma a high-five or blow her a kiss, maybe?” You can always explain to Grandma, later, what you’re doing and why. But don’t make a big deal out of it in front of your kid. If it’s a problem for Grandma, so be it, your job now is doing what’s best for your child and giving them the tools to be safe and happy, and help others do the same.
In teaching the very young (1-5 year-olds), the authors’ first point is teaching children to ask for permission before embracing a playmate. This resonates with me this week.
I’m finding that while adults, between them, have pretty clear social cues and rules for how and when others are to be greeted and with what touches (hugs, la bise, handshakes), when it comes to children those lines get pretty blurred. Many people, strangers to my son, come up to my babe and pick him up, kiss him or touch his face and head, without giving him time to get used to them or to see if kiddo’s interested in that proximity. He doesn’t necessarily scream or cry, but he often does seem perplexed and unsure. I don’t want to problematize something that needn’t be, and I’m aware that given my own experiences I do have this tendency, but there needs to be a way to at once recognize that touch is key for babies – to learn where their bodies end, to feel cared for, to learn and to grow – all the while recognizing that indiscriminate, albeit well-meaning, touch by quasi-strangers isn’t desirable.
That being said, I look forward to getting clearer cues from him, to being his advocate when he needs me to be, and to let caring displays of affection towards a lovely little one be just that.