What is body autonomy?
Body autonomy (sometimes called bodily autonomy) is defined by the United Nations as the power and agency a person has over their body and future, without violence or coercion. In other words, all people—including children—have a right to live free from physical acts, such as touch, to which they do not consent.
Why do body autonomy and consent matter?
Body autonomy and consent are vital to every human being. Learning about these concepts early in life helps to support a child’s social and emotional skills like sensitivity toward others and self-confidence. Body autonomy and consent also play a part in aiding children’s mental and physical health.
Some children love getting hugs and snuggles! Others, including those with touch sensitivities or sensory processing differences, may find these forms of physical affection uncomfortable or stressful. Allowing children to express when they are feeling discomfort or hurt and encouraging them to consider how others feel helps them to develop self-awareness and empathy.
Many professionals, including pediatricians, believe that teaching children about body autonomy and consent is also an important tool to help prevent child sexual abuse. This abuse can have long-term physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral consequences on children. Child sexual abuse is a significant problem: about one in four girls and one in thirteen boys experience sexual abuse at some point before the age of eighteen.
For a variety of reasons, many children who experience abuse wait to report or never report it. Understanding body autonomy and consent at a young age can empower a child to speak up and say “no” if abuse occurs. It can also equip children to disclose abuse if it happens.
This is a heavy topic, and it can be hard for caregivers to know how and when to talk with their children about these issues. The short answer? Start simple and start young!
Talking to children about autonomy and consent
Caregivers can begin talking with children about autonomy and consent as early as preschool. Conversations about these subjects should change and expand as a child grows. Here are some practical tips to initiate discussions with children and keep them ongoing.
Use the right terms at the right age
While preteens can begin to comprehend abstract concepts like “consent” or “autonomy,” preschoolers can grasp simpler words related to consent like “body,” “space,” and “touch.” Use phrases like “this is my body and my space” to illustrate meaning. Preschool is also a great time to teach children the correct anatomic names for body parts, including private parts. This approach helps children understand that these parts of their body are important and not shameful. Youngsters will also be able to use the right terms if they need to disclose abuse.
Talk with preschoolers and kindergarteners about who is allowed to see or touch their body and for what reasons. “OK touches” might include a parent helping them use the bathroom, a teacher helping tie their shoe, a friend giving them a hug, or a doctor giving them a checkup with a parent present. “Not OK touches” might include someone hugging or touching them without their permission or someone touching or asking to see their private parts. These conversations can develop as children age; include the subject of consent in discussions about sex and sexual harassment with your preteen and teenager.
Ask your child to name at least five family members and adult friends outside the family who they trust and see often. This might include a teacher, coach, or doctor. This group of adults is their “safety network.” Let your child know that if they ever feel uncomfortable, scared, hurt, or confused after an encounter with someone, they should talk with an adult in their safety network.
Practice giving and receiving consent
Some caregivers might encourage—even force—their children to “give grandpa a hug” or “give auntie a kiss.” Allow your child to decide whether or not they want to have this contact. Support the idea that if a child says “no,” the behavior should stop and not be forced.
Offering a choice empowers your child to have control over their own body and teaches them that it is okay to say no, even to adults. Give them other ways to show affection—a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump, for instance.
Remind your child to ask permission before touching another child. Share with them that not everyone likes to be touched, and that’s okay! Other people have autonomy over their own bodies too.
Starting the conversation
Physician Martha Perry suggests using media such as movies or news stories to spark conversations with your child about consent. Having conversations about consent and body autonomy will play a vital role your child’s health and wellbeing throughout their life.
Here are some resources to help you get started:
For preschool children
Our new board book Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! is a story about how some children dislike physical contact. This book can help you talk with your toddler or preschooler about how friendliness, love, and affection can be shown in many ways!
For grade-school children
Boss of My Body from the Mother Company is a music video that introduces the idea of body autonomy by encouraging children to be the “boss” of their own body.
For preteens and teens
The ASK. LISTEN. RESPECT. video and discussion guide can help you speak to your teenagers about healthy relationships, including setting—and respecting—boundaries.