Despite our best intentions, the holiday season can be stressful and, for our kids, it might seem completely impossible to navigate. Not only is it supposed to be fun, but as parents we send our kids mixed messages.
"You have a right to your own body, but grandpa wants a kiss."
"You don't have to try that food, but grandma made it and feels sad."
"Go sit on Santa's lap and smile for a picture."
However, if you view these as teachable moments, the holiday season can be a perfect time to teach your kids about bodily autonomy.
Bodily autonomy is the concept that your body belongs to you and no one else. Research shows that teaching your kids about bodily autonomy can demonstrate the importance of consent, can help build trust with your child, and can even help protect them from sexual violence. We all want our kids to safely grow into confident adults and teaching them about bodily autonomy is a great place to start.
As a parent, there will inevitably be times when you have to make exceptions for health, safety, and hygiene reasons. I start teaching my kids about their bodies when they are babies, and I respect and validate their feelings. While I can't always say OK when they don't want a flu shot or to let me brush their teeth, I can give them plenty of choices about toothpaste, hair styles, clothes, and whether or not they want hugs.
In my experience, the first step in teaching our kids about bodily autonomy is teaching them about consent and boundaries, and practicing what you preach; both by delivering against promises and modeling these things yourself. The holidays give us plenty of opportunities to do the aforementioned, despite Santa pictures and eager relatives. Here are a few examples:
When we tell our kids that they should have complete control of their bodies and then we make them sit on a stranger's lap, whisper a secret in his ear, and smile for a picture, we send seriously mixed messages.
A better strategy: skip Santa's lap and avoid a stressful wait in a line and potentially traumatizing experience. If you encounter Santa, let your child know that they get to decide whether or not to sit on his lap and that they have a right to say refuse. Don't make your little ones shoulder the weight of creating a perfect Christmas moment.
If your child says they don't want to talk to a stranger, receive a hug, eat a new food, or sit on Santa's lap, respect their choices. Praise their ability to set boundaries and let them know that it's OK to tell an adult "no" if something makes them feel uncomfortable.
If we force our kids to give or receive kisses and hugs, we teach them that they don't have a right to control their bodies. It might seem innocent, but for a child, it can be really confusing and make it difficult for them to understand when they are being touched inappropriately. If you are the one forcing this contact, it might lessen their trust in you if they are abused and need help.
A better strategy: ask your kids if they want a hug or kiss or better yet, skip affection with strangers and/or relatives altogether unless it's initiated by your child. Don't put your kids in a difficult place where they might not know it's OK to say no.
The same goes for when they want to give affection or touch others. Not everyone wants a 2-year-old toddler in their lap or to receive 100 sloppy kisses from your preschooler. Teach your kids to understand that others have a right to give or not give consent, too.
Feeding your kids at holiday parties and meals can suck. Between rich and unfamiliar foods, delayed and unusual meal times, and dining with strangers in strange places, your kids may be headed for tantrums, hunger strikes, or worse, vomit. And everything gets worse when you try to force feed your angels.
A better strategy: practice the magic phrase, "You don't have to eat it." Bring lots of snacks and familiar foods for your kids, and don't stress if you get the side eye from your relatives for not forcing your kids to clean their plates. I promise they won't starve, but they may just learn that you respect them and their bodies.
As with mealtime, I don't fight about clothes. As long as it fits and is weather appropriate, pretty much anything goes. There's no way I am going to force my kids to wear something that makes them uncomfortable, especially if we are going to a strange place. I offer lots of choices and tell people off who make the mistake of insulting their fabulous sense of style.
No one likes to be told how to feel, and when someone tells me I should smile, it makes me want to commit horrific acts of violence (something, obviously, no one should do). Why do we do this to our kids? The answer is: we shouldn't.
A better strategy: let your kids be, feel, and show emotion. Let go of your expectations of a picture perfect holiday, and you'll probably see a lot more smiles.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the gas-powered lights in their home and telling her nothing has changed. In the context of abuse and control, it can be a powerful tool for an abuser to break someone of their confidence. When we tell our kids to be happy or calm down or not react to big changes, big disappointments, or big emotions during the holiday season, we are gaslighting them. Essentially, we're conditioning them to not react or to behave in a certain way. We take away their voices, and that is not OK.
A better strategy: try to prevent tantrums by making sure your kids get enough rest, have access to foods they like, and don't get overstimulated by holiday excitement. If you need to, remove them from stressful situations.
Every year is a constant struggle to get everyone to smile at the same time. It never happens. Thank goodness for photoshop, right?
A better strategy: let your kids do the things they enjoy and capture those moments and memories. That way you won't have to force dress anyone or stress about their hair, smiles, and behavior.
If your kid has a meltdown, and they probably will, show them you respect them enough to not post a picture of their tantrum for the entire world to see. It's not funny and, chances are, if they are old enough to consent or not consent to you sharing their image, they will say, "no."
It's so scary to think about our kids ever being harmed. It's reassuring to learn that when kids have an adult they trust in their lives, they have a better shot of making it to adulthood unscathed. Be that adult.
Research shows that the best way to prevent kids from being sexually abused is to openly communicate with them and be someone they can trust. That means it's super important to teach them about their bodies, consent, and bodily autonomy and to show them that you mean what you say and respect them and their rights. A little empathy and support can go a long way towards ensuring a safe and happy holiday season for our kids. It's up to you, and you can do this.