Whether you are a (reluctant) climbing wall for your baby, or your toddler has started yelling “Don’t touch me!” your response will plant the seeds for body autonomy. Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to foster an early understanding of consent.
Hi parents! Today we're talking about setting the stage for your child’s early understanding of body autonomy and consent during the infancy and toddler years.
As babies become toddlers and begin to experiment with the limits of their power and autonomy, they may protest being touched or handled - and your response to these common conflicts matters. If a child knows their "no" will be respected, they begin to understand it as wrong if it is not respected, and that people can and should assert their boundaries when they don’t like what’s happening to them. If the people a child loves and trusts don’t acknowledge or respect their body boundaries, how will they know that people who they don’t know as well should respect their body boundaries? And if parents aren’t setting their own limits around body autonomy, how will children practice stopping themselves from invading another person’s personal space without permission?
Create a Culture of Consent at Home
Right from birth your baby is learning about you and themselves through your physical interactions with them. Your infant is a whole person whose body has internal and external experiences that they need help understanding, and you are the organizing force that forms their first expectations about the world. Through repeated experiences with you, your baby learns what to expect from others. You can start showing them what to expect by being intentional about how you handle their bodies.
During caregiving tasks like feeding, bathing, dressing and diapering, slow your speech and your movements so your baby has time to process what you’re saying and doing. Let them know what you’re about to do with their body before you do it, wait for signs of readiness before proceeding, involve them in each step along the way and gradually, your baby begins to expect that they will be treated with respect.
Model Setting Personal Boundaries
When your toddler begins climbing or pulling on you in ways you don’t like, express your personal boundaries immediately when you’re still relatively calm - not after you’ve endured it with clenched teeth for 15 minutes. Limits set with a lot of emotionality quickly devolve into power struggles. Use your go-to phrases repeatedly to help them internalize the boundary, and state your limit confidently, ending with a period, not a question mark.
Here are some ideas:
- Make a “Stop!” gesture with your hand to emphasize your words: “My body, my choice.”
- “I need you to stop. I’m the boss of my body.”
- “I didn’t give you permission to do that.”
- “Stop now. When someone says to stop touching their body - you need to stop right away.”
Make Giving Affection Voluntary
In our “power-over” society, adults sometimes expect children to blindly obey adult authority. Resist the urge to force children to be affectionate - so they’re not in the habit of accepting unwanted touch in the name of being polite to or saving face with adults. Assert your child’s boundaries and say, “Please ask him before tickling, hugging, or kissing.” Or if an adult doesn’t request or honor your child’s consent, you can also ask your child “Do you want to be hugged?” Or “Oh - his backing away is telling you he doesn’t want a hug. Need some space, kiddo?”
If you anticipate that adults might touch or hug your child without getting consent, physically put your body between the person and your child before that can occur, or offer a choice: "Oh hi, Mr. James! Sam, do you want to give a hug, or a high five? No, not feeling like it today? Ok, maybe next time!”
If a child knows their "No" will be respected, they begin to understand it as wrong if it is not respected, and that people can and should assert their boundaries when they don’t like what’s happening to them.
Make a habit of asking your child if you can give them a hug or a kiss and respect their answer. Clearly, you won’t remember to ask for permission to touch your child 100% of the time. You’re rushing, or you’re distracted, or you’re completely overcome with a wave of love for your adorable kid - that’s fine! But try to be intentional most of the time and be willing to stop in your tracks, mid-cuddle, if your child pulls away from you or looks uncomfortable in any way. Tell them first that you want to wipe their nose or face and wait until they’re ready before you do it. Try not to do things to their bodies without their awareness or while distracting them with something else, and get comfortable with your child telling you “No!” when it comes to their body.
Practice Setting Boundaries
Forcing physical affection is similar to insisting that kids take "one more bite" when they are telling you they are not hungry. It’s sending a message that they are not the boss of their body, and should instead take their cues from outside of themselves, and submit to people who are bigger or more powerful than they are. That doesn’t really set them up for success in the mindful eating or self-advocacy departments. And what will your child go on to expect from others once they are the bigger and more powerful one?
Instead, encourage children to listen to their bodies for information about whether or not they are hungry, full, cold, hot, or if they have to pee. And let your child discover their power to make someone stop right away by giving opportunities to practice setting boundaries with someone who will respect them. Role-play different scenarios in which your child gets to say to an imaginary other: “No thanks, I don’t feel like talking.” “Don’t grab me!” “Please give me space.” “Let go of me!” “Stop! I don’t like that!”
Another way to practice consent is during roughhousing or tickle time:
- Ask for permission,”Do you want me to tickle you?”
- If they say yes, ask ”any no-tickle-zones?” (Then let them state their boundary, eg. no belly, no armpits).
- Tickle them!
- Stop right away when they say or indicate they want to stop.
- If they want you to start again, let them know they’ll need to ask you to start again.
Advocate for Others’ Space Too
Help your child respect others’ body boundaries. If they’re a spontaneous hugger, stay close to them in social spaces, set a limit by putting an arm out to block their body when you see they’re moving toward another child and give a reminder: “Everyone gets to decide whether or not they want to be touched. If you want to give a hug, we need to check with her about whether she wants that.” If you see your child being playfully rough with a playmate you might narrate what you see as reminders for both kids: "I see two kids roughhousing! They're both still smiling and having fun...Uh-oh, I’m hearing someone say stop. I wonder what's happening here?" Your child may need reminders to tune in to nonverbal cues: “Look at Johnny’s face - it doesn’t look like he’s having fun anymore. It’s important to stop as soon as someone says stop with their voice, their body, their words, or their face.”
Your child may need reminders to tune in to nonverbal cues: “Look at Johnny’s face - it doesn’t look like he’s having fun anymore. It’s important to stop as soon as someone says stop with their voice, their body, their words, or their face.”
Bottom line: Unless it’s a matter of health or safety, create a culture in your home that lets your child know that any time, in any interaction (even with you), they have the right to decide what happens to their body. They have the right to ask for what they want and to stop anything they don’t like or want - and you won’t be angry with them for it.
Model what you would want them to do if they were dealing with unwanted touch from another person. Set your personal boundaries - and if necessary, the boundaries of others - early and firmly. Allow them to refuse physical affection from well-meaning adults, and provide fun opportunities to practice giving and rescinding consent. Your child will start to internalize the message: My parent will make sure people respect my body boundaries, they won’t let me cross their body boundaries or anyone else’s. And if I can’t stop myself, they will help me stop.
Thanks for listening!