While many parents are becoming increasingly aware of the importance in teaching their daughters consent, girls are still learning and internalize messages and actions that undermine their bodily autonomy. According to Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist, body autonomy “refers to the human right of people to have control over their own bodies.” Again, “human right.” Still, that human right is violated at alarming rates. In today’s world of rampant sexual assault of women and domestic violence, teaching little girls to respect and take charge of their bodies is not only necessary, it can be crucial for their survival. Sure, we must also teach boys to grow up to be respectful men, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t arm our daughter with power and confidence.
Two years ago, I was interrupted at work by a phone call. Typically, I don’t pick up the phone when I see an unfamiliar number, but on that particular day I did. It was the nurse from my daughter’s school. After she assured me everything was fine, she proceeded to tell me that my 6-year-old came to school with transparent leggings and needed to change. I had no idea what my daughter wore to school that day because she dresses herself for school and her grandfather drops her off at the bus stop since I am already at work. The nurse told me my daughter’s leggings were inappropriate and that my daughter could not go back to class until someone brought her a pair of pants. Until then, she was forced to sit in the nurse’s office, covered up by a blanket, likely scared and confused.
Not until two years later, did I realize what effect that day has had on my daughter and on her confidence. That day, she came home distraught. She cried from embarrassment; she clearly did not realize everyone could see her underwear; she was 6. My dad said she looked fine that morning. Now, she wears shorts underneath her dresses. Now, she covers up her belly and shoulders. Now, she is worried someone will think her body is embarrassing. So, while I do everything in my power to teach my daughter consent, a healthy body image, and bodily autonomy, a single day at her school, and the ridiculous way the totally benign situation was handled, put me 10 steps behind.
Parents should teach their daughters the importance of consent without undermining their personal choices or forcing them to dress a certain way or to look a certain way. While we cannot control other people, we definitely can control what happens in our home, because if we don’t at least try, our girls will definitely learn the following:
Whom They Give Affection To Is Not Their Choice
Many children are forced by their parents to kiss and hug family members. While, for decades, this type of pressure seemed like “teaching manners,” it actually undermines your child’s bodily autonomy. Why should anyone be forced to have physical contact with anyone? It is not rude to not show affection to someone just because that someone is a family member. Airial Clark, M.A, the founder of The Sex-Positive Parent and a sexuality educator and community organizer says, “affection should be freely given, which means it needs to be freely withheld.” Sure, Grandma Mary may become visibly upset when she feels rejected by her granddaughter, but Clark adds that,”this idea that rejection should be avoided at all costs is really harmful and a vital part of rape culture.”
Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention adds the following:
They Don’t Control Their Hair
I take both of my children for haircuts. I’ve taken them since their hair naturally grew into mullets and I thought that needed to change. However, ever since my daughter was old enough (around 3 or so) to tell me how/when she wants her hair cut, I have respected her wishes. That doesn’t mean I love her choices. Some days I really wish she’d cut her hair much shorter so it’s easier to handle, but I have to remind myself her hair is not my hair and her choices are not my choices.
Dr. Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and a Getting to Calm author reminds parents that they “sometimes have big opinions about ‘what looks best.’ However, if we dig deeply enough, we know that our notions about physical appearance and hairstyles are culturally constructed, influenced by our identities (not respect for our children’s budding ones), and potentially biased by our needs to bend our children toward conformity.” And personally, as Dr. Kastner puts it, I don’t want my children conforming when it comes to their bodies and to “subjugate themselves to others’ opinions about their bodies, desires to touch their bodies, or others’ beliefs about crossing personal boundaries.”
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