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The importance of bodily autonomy – and resources you can use to start the conversation

Imagine if you didn’t have control over what others could do to your body. Imagine if someone else got to call the shots – they chose haircuts for you, forced you to hug and kiss them for their own satisfaction, and wouldn’t even let you choose your own clothing. Most people would be uncomfortable with this situation, but this is the reality for most children – that their bodies are not theirs to have control over. The idea that a child can and should assert boundaries about their body is one that is gaining awareness in early childhood educational settings. It responds to the need for children to learn protective behaviours that aim to keep them safe for life – not just from sexual abuse, but situations where someone is not being respectful of personal space.

A person's hands are visible, operating a mechanical remote controller in Putten

Like adults, children possess intuition and comfort levels around physical touch that need to be acknowledged and treated with respect. Communicating personal boundaries confidently is a skill that children can use to own their bodies and to interact in ways that support their innate tendencies. For some children, particularly ones who are naturally introverted or slow-to-warm, it can be distressing when a person encroaches on their physical space. It isn’t about teaching a child that every adult is a predator, but that they are the boss of their own body and they control how others interact with it. Even the most extroverted, cuddly child will need space at times – and that is completely okay.

When developing these assertive capabilities in children, it is important to present the conversation at their level. The following resources are a good starting point for these discussions.

NO MEANS NO!

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This is a book I have personally used within the classroom with middle-to-upper primary school students, but it is suitable for younger students as well. My favourite part of this book is that the adult characters are portrayed as well-meaning, close people who just want to hug or wrestle with the child characters. They respond positively when the main character politely declines. The story also provides language for children to use in creating respectful boundaries – for instance, firmly saying no and offering a high-five instead. This equips children with a polite ‘out’ to boundary-pushing situations, without it seeming as if every person who wants a cuddle has an ulterior motive. The author, Jayneen Sanders, has another book called ‘My Body! What I Say, Goes!’ which has a similar theme.

Your Body Belongs to You

 

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This book is another one that explains the idea of bodily autonomy with simple language. It conveys the idea that you can still form a friendship with someone, even if you politely decline a hug or physical touch when you’re getting to know someone. It is a dated book (1997), but reassuring and appropriate.

Do You Have a Secret? 

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Although the previous titles are more about helping children to set comfortable boundaries, this book also encourages children to talk to adults about situations that have made them feel uncomfortable. It acknowledges that worrying is normal when something isn’t right and that trusting your instinct is a valuable thing to do. It also differentiates between secrets to be kept and secrets that need to be shared with a trusted adult.

I Said No!

 

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This simple and direct book is more aimed towards situations that could be predatory. It contains simple language for children to use when they are in situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Although it is important to teach children about the value of their bodily autonomy, this needs to be supported by giving children appropriate responses to these situations. Like with anything, children need to practice these short statements in verbal role-plays so that it becomes memorable.

It really is important for us to start these conversations. Although some people may be taken aback when a child asserts themselves to decline physical touch, what we ultimately want is to equip children to be firm in protecting their personal safety. 

 

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