Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Raising boys with bodily integrity

Welcome to the October 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Instilling a Healthy Self-Image

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared confessions, wisdom, and goals for helping children love who they are. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

We're hearing a lot from the parents of daughters for this Healthy Self-Image topic, and rightly so — as a woman and therefore in the minority position of power in this culture, I know I've often felt judged for what I look like rather than who I am — almost as if my body has worth only in how it relates to other people or how much it can please them.

As I raise two sons, I am well aware of how I want to change that paradigm within their own thinking: that I want them to love and respect their own bodies, understand their autonomy to make decisions related to their bodies (so that they will not, I hope, be victimized), and honor other people's autonomy over their bodies — so they will not, I dearly hope as well, ever play the role of victimizer. As future men (as far as gender roles go, so far Mikko identifies with being a boy, and Alrik's too young for me to know, so I'll go with his male parts for now), they will also have power to be a force either for good or ill in shaping the conversation about self-image in their culture, and hopefully in promoting healthier attitudes about what constitutes worth and beauty.

That all sounds grandiose, but it starts small and early: with open conversation, confidence that knowledge is a good thing, a respect for our boys' bodily autonomy in whatever ways we can support that, appropriate modeling, and proper defenses against anyone who would try to threaten their bodily autonomy.

Talking, talking, talking

As soon as Mikko expressed curiosity, we pointed out body parts. We use proper names for genitalia, and we're not embarrassed to talk about "private" parts or discuss their functions. I thought I might be giggly, talking about sex with my kids, but somehow, starting at a preschool level (and even earlier) has helped take the weirdness out of it. It sounds like a contradiction, perhaps, but the fact that it's just always been something on the table means there's no broaching a sensitive topic further down the line when one of us is not expecting it. Alrik now, too, knows all about his penis! What boy doesn't? We're also committed to telling them, repeatedly, how much they're beautiful the way they are, and how much we love them, regardless of circumstances.

Knowing is half the battle

We answer questions as matter-of-factly as we can, using language and comparisons they can understand at their age(s). I became pregnant with Alrik when Mikko was three, and that led easily into many discussions and book readings about reproduction: how babies are made, how they grow, why there are male and female body parts, and so on. We don't try to hide knowledge from our kids — even when Mikko found our drawer o' fun and asked what that funny vibrating thing was inside it!

Honoring our children's bodies and choices

Very early on, we have been careful to respect our children's wishes regarding their bodies. To start with, we didn't circumcise, and we've tried to honor their biological needs through breastfeeding, cosleeping, EC, and prompt diaper changing. We don't tickle except as a fleeting, silly caress (like running my fingers up their belly for "wee wee wee, all the way home" when I'm doing the piggies game) — no holding them down for tickle fights till they're gasping for us to stop. We don't spank or physically discipline them. We don't touch their genitals except when they're very young and when necessary to clean (poop off) them or apply diaper ointment (rarely) — this might seem like an odd thing to state, but it was important to me to let them know even from babyhood that the areas inside their undies are theirs and no one else has a right to touch them without their permission. We've worked with Mikko to find respectful ways to allow us to clean his hair and help him brush his teeth; despite some struggles with both, he trusts us enough now to let us do both in the way he prefers. Recently he's also decided to grow out his hair, and we respect his choice in that: Despite the fact that it grows right into his eyes, I won't let anyone razz him about the decision. We don't let other people force them into physical contact they don't want to make. And since we now have sibling situations, we also referee touching between the two kids, making sure we step in if one is pushing the other brother's limits.

Role modeling a healthy self-image

Sam and I also show our boys what a healthy self-image looks like in adult form. We're not exhibitionists, but we don't cover up nudity when we're getting dressed or washing up. We're matter of fact about our own bodily parts and functions (Mikko knows about a woman's cycles by watching me empty my DivaCup!). We take care to use positive language when talking about our own bodies in front of them. Another thing we do is model healthy boundaries — for instance, telling them that we don't want to be tickled, or touched in a certain area or in a certain way. I've even modeled it by cutting off nursing sessions that were causing me discomfort, and leading Mikko down the path to weaning. We expect others to respect our wishes about our bodies, so as we're telling them they have those choices for their bodies, we show them we also have those choices for our own.

Shoring up defenses

We warn our kids, too, about sneaky people. We've told Mikko (as we will with Alrik in the future) that he's allowed to choose who touches him and how — but that some people out there want to touch other people without permission or do it in a way that they want kept secret or that makes us feel bad. We've let him know he can say no, he can fight back, and he can tell us if anyone tries to be sneaky with him. We point out people who might need to touch him in ways he doesn't like (doctors, dentists, even us on occasion) to ensure his health, and talk about the differences between this kind of uncomfortable touching and other kinds. This is not a one-time conversation but an ongoing reminder system that will become more detailed the older our kids get. I plan to include in our conversations in the future the flip side of this: that they are not to be sneaky people themselves — that some types of touching are for when they're older (we've already started these discussions), that they need to seek the enthusiastic consent of any partners, and that they do not have the right to violate anyone else's bodily autonomy.

When this angle for my carnival post came to me, I worried that it didn't connect clearly enough with the topic of "instilling a healthy self-image." But the more I thought about it, the more I decided it fit perfectly (and not just because I'm the carnival co-host, heh heh).

We respect our bodies the more we own them. We have a healthy self-image the more we know that our bodies have inherent worth that others will respect. Our own self-esteem grows the more we view other people's bodies with respect, because how can we dislike our own wonderful uniqueness when we start from a basis of honoring the variety of bodies all around us?

I trust this foundation we're building with our boys will stand them in good stead as they navigate through crafting their own identities and building confidence in their own skin. I hope that as they learn respect for their bodies and others', they'll have a healthy self-image and be able to model that health for those around them.

How do you teach your children bodily autonomy? In what ways is it hard and in what ways is it easy to let your kids make their own decisions about their bodies and identities?

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon October 9 with all the carnival links.)

  • Why I Walk Around Naked — Meegs at A New Day talks about how she embraces her own body so that her daughter might embrace hers.
  • What I Am Is Not Who I Am — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses her views on the importance of modeling WHO she is for her daughter and not WHAT she sees in the mirror.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is.
  • The Naked Family — Sam at Love Parenting talks about how nudity and bodily functions are approached in her home.
  • How She'll See Herself — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis discusses some of the challenges of raising a daughter in our culture and how she's hoping to overcome them.
  • Self Esteem and all it's pretty analogies — Musings from Laura at Pug in the Kitchen on what she learned about self-esteem in her own life and how it applies to her parenting.
  • Beautiful — Tree at Mom Grooves writes about giving her daughter the wisdom to appreciate her body and how trying to be a role model taught Tree how to appreciate her own.
  • Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Nurturing A Healthy Body Image — Christy at Eco Journey in the Burbs is changing perceptions about her body so that she may model living life with a positive, healthy body image for her three young daughters.
  • Some{BODY} to LoveKate Wicker has faced her own inner demons when it comes to a poor body image and even a clinical eating disorder, and now she wants to help her daughters to be strong in a world that constantly puts girls at risk for losing their true selves. This is Kate's love letter to her daughters reminding them to not only accept their bodies but to accept themselves as well in every changing season of life.
  • They Make Creams For That, You Know — Destany at They Are All of Me writes about celebrating her natural beauty traits, especially the ones she passed onto her children.
  • New Shoes for Mama — Kellie of Our Mindful Life, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, is getting some new shoes, even though she is all grown up…
  • Raising boys with bodily integrity — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants her boys to understand their own bodily autonomy — so they'll respect their own and others'.
  • Sowing seeds of self-love in our children — After struggling to love herself despite growing up in a loving family, Shonnie at Heart-Led Parenting has suggestions for parents who truly want to nurture their children's self-esteem.
  • Subtle Ways to Build a Healthy Self-Image — Emily at S.A.H.M i AM discusses the little things she and her husband do every day to help their daughter cultivate a healthy self-image.
  • On Barbie and Baby Bikinis: The Sexualization of Young Girls — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger finds it difficult to keep out the influx of messages aimed at her young daughters that being sexy is important.
  • Undistorted — Focusing on the beauty and goodness that her children hold, Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children watches them grow, loved and undistorted.
  • Off The Hook — Arpita at Up, Down and Natural sheds light on the journey of infertility, and how the inability to get pregnant and stay pregnant takes a toll on self image…only if you let it. And that sometimes, it feels fantastic to just let yourself off the hook.
  • Going Beyond Being An Example — Becky at Old New Legacy discusses three suggestions on instilling healthy body image: positivity, family dinners, and productivity.
  • Raising a Confident Kid — aNonymous at Radical Ramblings describes the ways she's trying to raise a confident daughter and to instil a healthy attitude to appearance and self-image.
  • Instilling a Healthy Self Image — Laura at This Mama's Madness hopes to promote a healthy self-image in her kids by treating herself and others with respect, honesty, and grace.
  • Stories of our Uniqueness — Casey at Sesame Seed Designs looks for a connection to the past and celebrates the stories our bodies can tell about the present.
  • Helping My Boy Build a Healthy Body Image — Lyndsay at ourfeminist{play}school offers readers a collection of tips and activities that she uses in her journey to helping her 3-year-old son shape a healthy body image.
  • Eat with Joy and Thankfulness: A Letter to my Daughters about Food — Megan at The Boho Mama writes a letter to her daughters about body image and healthy attitudes towards food.
  • Helping Our Children Have Healthy Body Images — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares information about body image, and her now-adult daughter tells how she kept a healthy body image through years of ballet and competitive figure skating.
  • Namaste — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment shares how at barely 6 years old, her daughter has begun to say, "I'm not beautiful." And while it's hard to listen to, she also sees it as a sign her daughter is building her self-image in a grassroots kind of way.
  • 3 Activities to Help Instill a Healthy Self-Image in Your Child — Explore the changing ideals of beauty, create positive affirmations, and design a self-image awareness collage. Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares these 3 ideas + a pretty affirmation graphic you can print and slip in your child's lunchbox.
  • Beautiful, Inside and Out — It took a case of adult-onset acne for Kat of MomeeeZen to find out her parenting efforts have resulted in a daughter that is truly beautiful, inside and out.
  • Mirroring Positive Self Image for Toddlers — Shannon at GrowingSlower reflects on encouraging positive self image in even the youngest members of the family.
  • How I hope to instill a healthy body image in my two girls — Raising daughters with healthy body image in today's society is no small task, but Xela at The Happy Hippie Homemaker shares how choosing our words carefully and being an example can help our children learn to love their bodies.
  • Self Image has to Come from WithinMomma Jorje shares all of the little things she does to encourage healthy attitudes in her children, but realizes she can't give them their self images.
  • Protecting the Gift — JW from True Confessions of a Real Mommy wants you to stop thinking you need to boost your child up: they think they are wonderful all on their own.
  • Learning to Love Myself, for my Daughter — Michelle at Ramblings of Mitzy addresses her own poor self-image.
  • Nurturing An Innate Sense of Self — Marisa at Deliberate Parenting shares her efforts to preserve the confidence and healthy sense of self they were born with.
  • Don't You Love Me, Mommy?: Instilling Self-Esteem in Young Children After New Siblings Arrive — Jade at Seeing Through Jade Glass But Dimly hopes that her daughter will learn to value herself as an individual rather than just Momma's baby
  • Exercising is FUN — Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work talks about modeling for her children that exercising is FUN and good for body and soul.
  • Poor Little Chicken — Kenna at A Million Tiny Things gets her feathers ruffled over her daughter's clothing anxiety.
  • Loving the skin she's in — Mama Pie at Downside Up and Outside In struggles with her little berry's choice not to celebrate herself and her heritage.
  • Perfect the Way I Am — Erika at Cinco de Mommy struggles — along with her seven-year-old daughter — at telling herself she's perfect just the way she is.


Unknown said...

What a fantastic post! You've really given me some things to think about there, especially as my daughter gets older and starts to ask more questions. Thanks.

Casey said...

I'm excited to be included in such a great group of bloggers! I love this angle you took. Answering questions and speaking about bodies with honesty and without shame is so important. Kids really need a steady stream of conversation as they're ready to hear it, not a ton of info thrown at them in pone sitting (ie: "the talk") when it's likely too late.

Emily said...

You make so many good points. I love how much thought you put into raising your boys. As the mother of a girl, I sincerely hope there are many other parents out there doing the same with their boys. We've adopted very similar methods with our daughter (being very open about anatomy, etc.) and we always stop when she asks us too...whether we're playing hide and seek or tickling (she really likes to tickle so we use it as a way to practice boundaries. She stops when we say no and we stop when she says no...I want her to know that no, means no and she has the right to tell someone no, especially where her body is concerned! Thanks for such a great post!

Kate Wicker said...

I so appreciate your points here, especially since baby number four was a boy after so many X chromosomes. :-)

Raising daughters is certainly a challenge when it comes to body image, etc., but raising boys in a manner that respects the dignity of their own body as well as their female counterparts is equally challenging for different reasons. There's much great food for thought here for me to chew about.

Also, we've always used the correct terminology for genitalia. It's amazed me how rare this and how there still seems to be shame around body parts. As you know, I'm a conservative Catholic, but I have no shame in my body or in my children not referring to ANY part of their body as their nu-nu. :-)

Thank you for the thought-provoking post as always. I've been quiet in social media land recently, but it's always good to visit your space!

God bless.

Shonnie said...

Lauren I really enjoyed your post and have more to think about regarding sexuality as part of me has imagined locking our "drawer o' fun" to avoid our own real life Parenthood vibrator scene. I honor how you and your husband are helping your boys build self-love and self-respect for its own sake as well as for the way it helps them love and respect others. If my daughter ends up interested in boys I envision her choosing ones like the ones you are striving to raise.

Tree Peters said...

Well, I already know that your boys are going to be incredible, amazing men.
But this is all good stuff!!
Seriously, it's true that we can't forget the boys in all of this.
I believe that all the things we say for girls applies for boys too. There are so many boys who have body image issues these days, or who feel they are not as good as...
Plus, the idea of how we talk about our own bodies, criticize our bodies... as women will also set them up for how they look at women. In a very confusing way, right? because how can they understand that the mother who is nothing but a goddess to them is anything less than beautiful?
And how do we talk about our failures and accomplishments...
Still... I thnk your boys are magic.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Fantastic post - it resonates with much of what we're doing with Kieran. And I'm so glad we've been open and honest, because I think it's made the leap from son to son + daughter much easier.
The subject of bodily autonomy from a young age for either gender is SO important, and is still so brushed aside in mainstream culture. I hope your post is spread far and wide.

Christy said...

Thank you for your perspective of a mother of sons. My life is literally filled with all things feminine and I worry that I do not have exposure to a more male perspective (all I have is my husband's).

I wonder if men feel the same pressure about body image (my husband says no).

I agree with you about properly naming body parts, and it always seems weird when I encounter someone who doesn't like using the proper terms. My mother cringed recently when my 2 year old pointed to her vagina but couldn't say the word clearly so my 5 year old corrected her.

One thing that really struck me was your comments about tickling. I am guilty of enjoying rough-housing and tickle fests (my husband totally dislikes it). Two daughters love it too, but one dislikes it similar my husband, so I never play with her that way. Then again, she is also the one who does not like to be kissed, so we just have lots of hugs. Perhaps I need to think more about this.

Definitely some food for thought. Thank you.

Sheila said...

Great advice! I have two boys as well, and do pretty much all these things. People talk about "keeping children innocent" by always covering up around them, but I feel it keeps them most innocent if I don't do that. Since I take baths with them, they really think naked mama is no big deal. When they get older, I'm sure they will let me know when they'd prefer to take baths by myself.

One thing is for sure -- they won't be growing up to be men who cringe at the sight of a woman breastfeeding. That'll be old hat to them. ;)

Anonymous said...

Love love love your thorough, awesome post. My husband was tickled as a child and it REALLY bothered him. He does not tickle our kids, or allow anyone to tickle them. Thanks for the other reminders.

Arpita And Jonathan said...

I love the perspective on body image when raising boys! It's true that the focus is definitely on girls - which is important - but no more or less than with boys. I really love your point about tickling. I was (and still am) a very ticklish person and I remember always being SO angry that the automatic response is laugher when it's not fun at all for the person being tickled!! I love that you've chose to repsect and stand up for that for your boys, as well as their right to own their bodies - even as babies. Love!

Unknown said...

This is a wonderful post. It sounds like you have made a number of well thought out and wise decisions. On a further note applauding you, I will say that every parent should consider teaching their children the proper names of genitalia. For a time, I worked with victims of molestation, primarily children. In many cases, the molesters did not use the actual name but rather chose to call it something cutesie that was not clear. While that sounds like a small thing, you would be amazed at how often in court that can lead to destroying the child's testimony. Thank you for being so proactive and developing strong traits in your sons. Best wishes to you!

RachelRenae said...

I thought this was a really refreshing perspective, both coming from a mom of boys, and for parents of children of any gender. I'm curious about your thoughts on tickling… You list it in the paragraph right before spanking, and I'm wondering if this is something you don't do because your kids have expressed a dislike of it, or something you don't do based on a philosophical reason. For instance, I believe that spanking is never necessary or right, and we don't spank for any reason. On the other hand, my two-year-old daughter loves being tickled, and when she says "no," it's usually with a big smile on her face, playing a game. If I thought she seriously didn't want me to tickle her, I wouldn't. It's honestly just not something I've ever thought about. What is your take on this?

Lauren Wayne said...

@RachelRenae: I didn't mean to equate tickling with spanking, just the idea of touching kids in ways they dislike or that cause them discomfort. If your daughter loves tickle games (some kids do!), then I'd say just continue reading her signals. Maybe when she's older, you could even give her a safe word as an escape valve in case she's laughing too hard to tell you to stop? Because I agree that "no" and "stop" can be used in a game where there's an opposite intent — it might help if there was something else she could say ("mercy" or "bananas") that meant, "I need this game to end for now."

I know it's probably a personal preference. When I was a kid, I didn't like being tickled but was such a people- and parent-pleaser that I would never have said so without being genuinely asked. I think if you continue checking in with your kids, you can distinguish between a genuine like and someone just going along.

It seems related to roughhousing — I was never much for it, maybe because I was a girl, maybe because I've always been a wuss, ha ha! But I see my boys and their dad really enjoying wrestling and being physically goofy like that. I just trust my husband to listen to what the kids really want in those instances and meet the roughhousing need while making sure not to get anyone physically or emotionally hurt.

Thanks for your comment and letting me clarify! :)

Michelle Bowman said...

I love your approach to this month's topic. Learning boundaries and respect at an early age is a fantastic way to teach them to love their bodies- this love is also respecting their bodies.
Great post!

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