Bodily autonomy.

It’s something we all intrinsically understand to be important—but sometimes that’s because we have decades of life experience under our belt. And when it comes to teaching children about it and why it’s vital, you can feel stumped.

In a nutshell, bodily autonomy means a person’s body is inviolable; that is, they should have total control and freedom over what happens to their physical being. In the field of human rights, violating bodily autonomy is regarded at the bare minimum as unethical, but often as criminal, too.

That’s great in theory, it really is. Applying it to real life in a context that a young child can understand is a different matter, though. So let me tell you how I’ve done it, and how I’m continuing to work toward teaching my child about the integrity of her body.

Since my daughter was a tiny baby, I’ve said our positive affirmations, always concluding with this:

“We believe in bodily autonomy. That means you decide who touches you and where.”

Women in particular are so often raised to feel that, once they enter into a relationship, deciding what happens to their bodies becomes secondary to their partner’s feelings. This can lead to many uncomfortable situations: ending up on a date with a man they don’t like; being kissed by a man they don’t like; and even worse, having sex with a man they don’t like. Some of this stems from the fear of what men might do when they’re rejected. As Margaret Atwood once wisely noted, “Men are worried women will laugh at them. Women are worried men will kill them.”

So there’s a sense that sometimes we go along with things ‘to keep the peace’—which is a euphemism meaning to protect ourselves. But there’s another route to this behaviour, too—and it starts young. Let’s say a relative comes to visit, and demands a kiss from your child before they leave, despite your child clinging tight to your leg. What if you thrust them forwards regardless, and their body is embraced in a way they didn’t choose?

You wouldn’t accept—and probably wouldn’t even imagine—this behaviour among adults. But there’s no difference. If you wouldn’t like an adult pushing you towards another to be lifted up, kissed, or bear-hugged without their consent, at what point going down in age does that stop concerning you?

And to clarify, this behaviour is widespread—obviously you’re not a bad person if you’ve insisted your littl’un goes to give Auntie a kiss on occasion—but it does beg the question: if we as parents are not ultimately our children’s protectors, who is?

The answer’s simple: no one. You are their protector.

And it can be tough going—but there is no other option.

First: we all must practice autonomy more. All the time, in fact. Even if you yourself say “Mummy wants to give you a big kiss” and you’re met with a firm “No”. It’s hard to stop yourself from replying “Oh go on! Just one kiss, for Mummy.” But that’s emotional manipulation. So practise. And in this instance, simply say, “Okay!”

It can be more difficult when the insistent party is a well-meaning friend or relative. (Or an estate agent who first strokes your daughter’s hair, then lifts her up. Yep. That really happened to me. Suffice it to say, he didn’t get his commission.) You need to be ready to jump in. Disregard any frowns or upset. Whenever it happens with me, I hold my daughter (often as she’s looking at me with pleading, uncertain eyes) and say, “Darling, would you like to kiss Auntie goodbye, give her a hug, wave, high-five, or blow a kiss?” And she chooses. She decides. And they may not like it. They may even imply (or outright assert) I’m pushing my ideas between their relationship with my child.

But I know her. And I know when she does and doesn’t want to be touched.

By showing my daughter from a young age that she gets to decide what happens to her body and no one else—and more importantly by showing her that grownups will respect her decision—she’ll grow up effortlessly attuned to when she’s being touched in a way she doesn’t want, or otherwise having her personal space impinged upon. And she’ll know when she does want someone to touch her. And it won’t be because they’ve guilt-tripped her into it. It will be because she’s able to assert her voice when her instincts kick in, telling her something’s not quite right—that feeling in the pit of the stomach so many have sadly learned to ignore.

It will be because she is totally at one with her body.