Keeping our children safe: Looking at body autonomy

As parents, we are concerned about our children’s safety. When we hear about cases of child abuse, we cringe and hold on to our kids and are worried about how to protect them. We also wonder how we could raise them to treat others respectfully.
Representative Image
Representative Image

Chennai

One aspect of safety, which we will discuss in today’s article is helping children recognise the importance of respecting one’s own personal space and that of others. 
How can we teach this to children? 
Touch me only if I am willing: Do not put pressure on a child to hug, kiss, sit on anyone’s lap, have their cheeks pinched or be carried if they don’t like it. Not even their grandparents or family members. We often force the children to comply because we don’t want the adult to feel bad. The child thinks – “I have to do things to keep adults happy, even if it’s making me uncomfortable.” 
What a parent could do-- Ask the child if they want to wave or give a high five or a flying kiss. We can tell the other adult,” Right now I think she doesn’t feel like hugging or being carried. Let her come back when she is ready.” When the child hears this, they get the message that no one can touch them unless they are comfortable with it.
A hug is a hug only when wanted: Even parents need to be conscious about hugging or kissing a child if they are not in the mood for it. Sometimes we want to be physical with them despite the child resisting. 
The child thinks – “I hate it when Amma cuddles me when I don’t feel like it. Just because I am small no one listens to me”. What a parent could do – While we want to be spontaneous in showing our love, we need to be aware of what the child is feeling at that moment and only cuddle with them when they are willing. 
When we are respectful towards a child’s personal space, the child learns to demand the same of others. 
Stop, pause, listen: When the children say ‘No!’ to tasks concerning their body - like brushing, bathing, changing clothes or taking medicines, we often use physical force to get the task done. We are concerned about their wellbeing.
The child thinks – It’s my body. I don’t like it when I am forced. What a parent could do - Stop the action, take a pause and try to find out why the child is saying no. Are they overwhelmed? Is their body or teeth hurting? Are they upset about something? In situations where they need to comply, we could find ways to get them to do things while remaining respectful. 
Explain the reason and give choices - Bath first or brush first? Medicine in a spoon or dropper? Red or blue bucket for bathing? 
Using force over a child gives them the message that it is ok for an adult to do this 
Your body your rules: My body my rules - Sometimes children express their affection, anger or even excitement by pinching, biting or hitting an adult or child. For example, my son loves to poke at my underarm and squeeze my arm hard, which I don’t enjoy. Yes, it’s just playful, but do I have to grit my teeth and bear it. The child thinks- “I am only expressing my feelings. When others can do what they want to me, even when I don’t like it. Then I can do the same”. 
What a parent could do - Start a dialogue with children about personal boundaries - your body your rules and my body my rules. If I say no, you need to respect that. If another child says no or stop, you need to stop immediately. 
This way, we teach our children that their no means no and not maybe ok or yes. They learn that this is for their own bodies and for others too. We, thus, are empowering them with knowledge about body safety, which will stay with them throughout their lives.
Prasanna Vasanadu is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families. To know more about our programmes and workshops, look us up on www.parentingmatters.in

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