Kids Should be Able to Express Their Bodily Autonomy

When I was in high school, I volunteered as a summer camp counselor. It was a wonderful experience, and though I’d worked with kids in other contexts before that (including a heaping helping of babysitting), there was one thing in the experience that surprised me. One kid was particularly rambunctious in comparison to the others and could sometimes ruffle some fellow campers’ feathers. But unlike other large-scale childcare experiences that I had been through, this particular camp had a policy of generally not telling kids no or telling them to apologize.

Now, this isn’t something I necessarily always agree with. I do think you often have to tell kids no (we can’t only eat ice cream), and I also think that a lot of those decisions depend on the particular child. But the camp didn’t devolve drastically into any sort of chaos. One interesting bit was the logic behind not making kids apologize: they shouldn’t have to say something they don’t mean and apologies start to feel like they’re just something you say even when you don’t feel it. It was an interesting approach: explain to a kid why and how they might have hurt someone and tell them it might be kind to apologize if they felt bad. I think there’s an area beyond apologies that could really use a transfer of this sort of thinking.

We’ve all essentially agreed that touching someone without permission isn’t alright. But it seems there can be a bit of a blindspot in our rule when it comes to children. I don’t imagine you’d have to think too hard to remember yourself being told, someone you know being told, or even telling a child to give a family member a hug or even let a family member kiss them. “Go on, give Grandma a kiss” isn’t an unusual phrase.

I’m far from the only person to talk about teaching kids about their own bodily autonomy, and there are many approaches to it, but I don’t think it ever hurts to add to the discussion. Giving children the ability to say no to touch instills in them the concept that their body is theirs, and that they’re allowed to tell people not to touch them, even when it’s Granny that wants a hug or kiss.

Children don’t always have the same logic as us adults. It’s simple for us to separate a kind touch from something more sinister. But for kids, adults can often be a monolith that is supposed to be good and knowledgeable. A group that you have to listen to because they “know better.” It’s good to inform children that they can have boundaries, even between themselves and adults, and bodily autonomy is a pretty simple concept to do so with.

In addition, it’s unfortunate to have to point out, but my time as a criminal justice student has me more than aware that those more sinister and unwanted touches are statistically more likely to come from a friend or family member (in fact, 90 percent of such victims know their abuser). Teaching a child to say no when they’re uncomfortable or just feeling shy, even when it’s someone they like or someone that their parents are positive towards, isn’t just a way to make them feel more secure in their physical selves. It’ll also keep you secure in the fact that they know their body belongs to them.

But this isn’t all scary stuff and statistics. I’m certainly not trying to create some sort of panic talking about this, or saying that you need to teach a child to be distrustful of the people close to them. This is something that I think is useful even when not talking about those worst case scenarios. Even when it’s completely harmless Grandpa or Grandma so-and-so, letting your kid know that their body is theirs seems a positive in relatively innocent contexts as well. After all, we wouldn’t expect a friend or family member to hug us if they weren’t big on hugging or were just feeling down that day.

A child is a small person developing in the world. And they need to be taught what the rules of the world are, in gradually more and more complex ways. The main reason to teach a kid that there body is theirs shouldn’t be for fear of some terrible criminal consequence that happens to them if you don’t. A child should be able to say when they don’t like to be touched because there’s no immediate danger or negative effect to letting them do so, and we adults generally don’t like to be touched when we aren’t feeling it. Giving children the same boundaries teaches them early that those boundaries are absolutely okay.

There are two things you’ll want to consider if this is a topic you want to focus in on: how to explain it to the kiddo and how to explain it to adults that might be a little put-off by the whole thing for one reason or another. There are many people who think kids should essentially listen to everything an adult says. That isn’t my personal opinion, though definitely not attempting to pass too harsh a judgement on other parent or guardian styles. This is a suggestion I have that I believe could be positive for a lot of kids, nothing more.

Explaining to a child that they can say no to touch may seem pretty simple, but it’s important to keep in mind that depending on the kid, concepts might get reduced down into something not quite ideal. We don’t want kids screaming “No!” at the top of their lungs every time someone pats them on the head or tries to give them a hug.

Of course, you should adapt this to whatever works for the kid or kids you are working with, but personally my go-to for explaining this would be describing that it is possible to say a polite no. Phrases like “I’m not feeling like a hug right now” or “I’d rather not be touched at the moment” or even “Could we high-five instead?” are all good suggestions to offer up as polite ways to say no. But I also think it’s a good idea to tell them if the person pushes, they are well within their rights to get a little more forceful at a certain point. Basically, making it clear that there is no point at which they have to relent and be touched.

Explaining concepts to adults is hopefully a little easier. If an aunt or grandpa tries to insist on a hug, and even looks to you for some assistance in getting said hug, a simple “I’m teaching them that their body belongs to them and they never have to be touched” should probably be enough for them to understand. You’re the guardian or caretaker, so your word should go.

Every kid is different, with a unique personality and different needs. However, I personally think that at least most children could benefit from a clear understanding of their own bodies. They don’t need to be dropping the term “bodily autonomy” or anything; it’s possible for kids to have a decent comprehension of the concept that they only need to allow touch from people that they’d like to.

About Emma Hartsock

Emma Hartsock is an undergraduate student at the University of North Texas, majoring in Sociology with minors in Criminal Justice and Biology. She’s got experience in everything from volunteering as a summer camp counselor and regular babysitting, to just happily hanging out with her younger cousins and brother. She spends her time working hard at personal projects such as her writing, design, and any other various enterprises she has on the burner.