A Child’s RIGHT to Bodily Autonomy

Well I have decided that I have too much invested in this idea of a child’s right to bodily autonomy, not to blog about this. Bear with me because it’s been a while. 

I’ll start with a short story: This past weekend a family member slapped her 8 year old son in the face with an open hand in front of a room full of adults. His transgression? Asking for candy. Well actually, he was asking if he could bring his aunt a piece of candy and his mother misunderstood him. Not once, but three times. Angrily. He asked and was given a stern no. He tried to clarify and was screamed at and on the third try, he was slapped.

Lets start with the fact that she heard him wrong 2 times before her irritation led her to physical violence. Sometimes parents get stressed out, they run around all day and they do for their children 24/7. They get tired, they get cranky and exhausted and they can’t always stop to have a true conversation with their child. A lot of adults rarely have the time or will to stop and have a true conversation with each other. But I want to emphasize the importance of having true conversations with our children. When we stop to really listen to our children, they feel that what they have to say has value. That feeling is important, it is directly linked to their belief about themselves. A child who is able to talk to a parent/adult that they trust, and truly be heard. Learns the power of words and learns to use words as a vehicle to standing up for themselves and others. True conversation, even in disagreement, even in flighty questions posed at random moments can shape your child’s relationship with THE TRUTH, with standing up for themselves and others and with words in general. When we teach our children the value of communication, they are empowered. The act of ignoring a child is the act of cheating a child out of their right to be heard. The act of misunderstanding a child in favor of your own conclusions or assumptions is emotionally abusive. Why? Because it is literally unjust. These small things are unjust to a child, not being heard is a huge blow to a child’s heart. Or being heard and being made to feel that what they’ve said or expressed is not important, can cause pain. Listen to your children, sometimes they talk nonsense but sometimes they speak from the heart, from curiosity or confusion….you must learn to tell the difference between their play talk and their true talk. True talk from a child must be heard, must be responded to. “because i said so” logic can never work when you are respecting your child’s rights.So in the case of this family member and her son, he posed a simple question….our children ask a lot of questions. It is in their nature. In this case he wanted permission to do something. If we parent from the understanding that we do not own our children. That understanding demands that we spend time explaining to children.It means that you must help your child to understand decisions that they cannot make for themselves. As well as decisions where their choices are limited or non-existent. Only a conversation can help your child understand this. Meaning you must have self control, when you’re frustrated and patience to stop and listen.

child slap

Lets move on to physical discipline. Beyond conventional discipline. That model of discipline where a parent pulls out a belt, tells the child to lay on the bed or a lap and spanks their bottom. Spur of the moment discipline is the most dangerous kind. Spur of the moment discipline is done out of a parents loss of control. That loss of control can cause serious harm to a child. That is why experts recommend that if you use spanking/physical discipline that you NEVER spank when you are angry or emotions are running high. This is because you run the risk of harming your child. Slapping a child in the face can literally harm them, it can cause hearing loss, it can draw blood or bruise, it can fracture bones in the face. This is why children services investigates referrals that involve hitting in sensitive parts of the body. The head/face and back, these are considered very sensitive places. Now, outside of the practical issue of spur of the moment physical discipline and physical discipline in general, you have to understand what you are communicating to your child when you hit them. When you hit a child you are teaching them that their body is not their own. You are teaching them that someone they trust is allowed to violate their body in order to control their behavior. You are teaching that child that they are powerless over their body and what happens to it. Adults understand that people are not allowed to hit them. They understand that people are not allowed to touch them without their consent. This lesson is integral to the growth and development of children as well. A child needs to know that their body BELONGS to them. That strangers are not allowed to touch their body because it BELONGS to them. That family/neighbors etc are not allowed access to their body because it BELONGS to them. That lesson is important, practically, because if someone harms your child, they need to be able to recognize that harm as wrong in order to report it. But emotionally as well because that is the beginning of self esteem and the formulation of boundaries. When human beings understand that no one has rights to their body but themselves, they naturally start to work out ways to protect their body. The desire to protect the body stems from an understanding that their body is valuable. That understanding of value is a part of their self esteem. Having the power to make decisions about your body is also a part of your self esteem. When you hit a child, you are violating their body. whether it hurts or not, whether it leaves a mark, whether it’s a spanking or a slap in the face. You are violating their right not to have anyone harm their body or threaten their body. Worst, you are sending them the message that when they do something you don’t like, they no longer own their body or have control over it. When other people can control your body, it loses it’s value. When you learn that your body is not valuable, you are less likely to believe you have control over your body. Hitting a child teaches them a very serious lesson about power and control. You are teaching them that they can control situations by violating boundaries. That they can control situations by using violence. That control and violence can give them power. Idk about you but that frightens me. We have a lot of adults now that get off on the use of power….in our government and in our prisons.

Obviously I’m not saying that children who are spanked grow into adults that don’t value themselves or know how to put up boundaries.Nor am I saying that every adult who is spanked or even abused has power/control issues. But to say that our childhood understanding of ourselves bears no impact on our adulthood, is ridiculous. There is so much research coming out now about the effects of child abuse on children. It is fact that child abuse/neglect negatively impacts growth & development, that trauma literally causes you to lose I.Q. points. People are fragile, especially young people. The way we experience and understand our world as children tends to be the way we experience and understand it as adults. If boundaries and autonomy weren’t important as a child, why would they be important as an adult? If we learn that we can gain power over others by being controlling or even violent, why wouldn’t we try this as adults? Especially if it worked on us. 

If you were slapped in the face and spanked as a child for everything you did wrong, or did to cause your parents displeasure or irritation. What kind of adult will that make you? A bully with no self control? A victim who confuses love and abuse? A successful adult with intimacy issues? because being close to people makes you feel powerless? As parents, do we think about the adults we are sending into the world, when our children are annoying 8 year olds that we have to deal with? What difference could we make in their development if we took time to listen? If we gave them more choices, even in their forms of discipline. Do we ask little Jenny if she wants her tablet taken away, a spanking or 3 hours in her room without TV on saturday? What do we have to lose by offering children these kinds of choices? Power? Why do we need power over our children? Is discipline an exercise of power, or is it a vehicle for understanding and growth? Aren’t we correcting our children in order to protect and nurture them? And if we are…as we should be…shouldn’t they be a part of that process and not a victim of it? we must EVOLVE as parents. We must learn to be CONSISTENT. 

Teaching bodily autonomy and respecting it, consistency, choices and learning to listen to children’s true talk….this type of parenting BUILDS strong empowered people. That is our sole job as parents, as stewards over vulnerable humans. 

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