How do I discuss body autonomy regarding children's haircuts?

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How do I mention body autonomy with children's haircuts?
Hair art print by Francesca D'Ottavi Art Prints
I was visiting my brother who is a new step-parent to four children, three of whom are boys. He had decided to give all three of the boys buzz cuts for the summer. The oldest, who is 14, was protesting this and wanted to keep his hair his usual length. My brother, an admittedly more old skool type of guy, insisted on the haircut despite his stepson's request.

I wanted to say something about body autonomy, especially since his stepson seems a bit old for mandatory haircuts (in my opinion), but resisted the urge. I do think, however, that we should be encouraging all children to have full control over their bodies outside of things that would bring them harm. And we shouldn't discourage boys from learning to style their own hair as well, since it's often derided as something only girls care about. How do you think I should have handled that situation? – M

Body autonomy, as defined by Getting to Calm author and clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Kastner,

"refers to the human right of people to have control over their own bodies. This right grants people self-determination regarding how their body is used or treated, personal boundary inviolability, and choices about who touches one’s body and who doesn’t.

We, as parents, have a responsibility to make sure that our child’s health is maintained, which includes feeding, cleaning, and protecting their bodies from harm. But ideally, we explain our reasoning and respect their need for control as much as possible. Even with food, it is our job is to supply healthy food at appropriate times, but it is the child’s job to decide what and how much to ingest. Because health decisions will be mostly non-negotiable, encouraging your child to explore his or her unique tastes and whims with hair style is an ideal way to support your child’s understanding and rights to body autonomy."

Most of us grew up in a time when we had to clean our plates, hug every and all relatives and friends, and generally let our parents make our choices for clothing and hair. So for many Gen Xers and Millennials, it's very natural to want to control all of those aspects that were controlled for us. The problem is a greater one that affects all genders when it comes to consent and control over own needs and wants.

We live in a time when powerful people feel they can dominate and abuse people with less power. Children don't often even know what consent means, how to retreat when they are crossing a boundary, or when they are absolutely in the right to say no or pull away from contact. So we're treading in choppy waters and feeling our way.

I can't say whether or not you're close enough to your brother to have felt comfortable speaking up about the hair, but it may be worth mentioning in private at some point. You're right that we shouldn't discourage children, and especially boys, from wanting to express themselves via their hair and style. And if his oldest is already 14, it's probably time to let him make those decisions. Ideally, they'd want to start the consent discussions well before this time so that they're making their own choices and learning about boundaries at a younger age.

Your brother is new to parenting (unless he already has his own children), so it may be good to mention it to his partner as well, to see if they can come to an agreement on how to handle haircuts and other body autonomy choices down the line. The big takeaway would be that if the child understands what the choices are and doesn't get a say, that the child knows why something is happening to them and why it's for their safety. Otherwise it's worth looking at their own reasoning to see if it's something the child can choose and still be making a safe choice.

Here's a great article on why body autonomy requires both consent and understanding of what consent means that may help.

Fellow Homies: what advice can you give to parents or friends/family of parents who may be thinking of how to handle teaching body autonomy to their kids?

More resources on body autonomy:

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  1. In the moment I think you handled the situation correctly. In the moment not many parents will hear someones advice as well meaning, they will hear it as a critique of their parenting. Especially if they are also dealing with the heightened emotions involved with arguing with a teenager.

    But body autonomy is something that needs to be discussed. Since he's a knewer parent try sharing a good story about body autonomy or consent with him. Or better yet have repeated conversations with him about the topic that does not target him. Try something more generic, like "so i was talking to another mom friend about teaching consent and i found this really interesting….." This way you don't put him on the defensive.

    9 agree
  2. I agree that it’s an important conversation for parents. Especially with boys. When we model respect, consent, body autonomy, and healthy boundaries for them, they have a better idea of what those look like, and they can then take those concepts with them into personal relationships. It all matters.

    3 agree
  3. Your brother is a new step father, the children need time to learn to love and trust him. We dont know how long your brother has been in their life and if they really know him.

    Forcing them to cut their hair is not the right way to do this and it is more damaging than good. Their mother and biological father should take the main decisions and choose the way to rear their children.

    7 agree
  4. Ugh, do you WANT "Fuck you, you're not my real dad!"?

    Because this is how you get "Fuck you, you're not my real dad!"

    20 agree
    • This this this! And I feel like it's exactly how they should respond, because that's crazy.

      3 agree
  5. We've been teaching our little munchkin about bodily autonomy and consent since she was little. She asks for hugs (most of the time, she is 3), tells people when she doesn't want to be touched, and even saying no, very clearly, if people try to push. She also knows that even if she doesn't want to, her teeth have to be brushed, as does her hair.

    7 agree
  6. I think taking your brother aside and speaking to him privately is best, and definitely don't say anything in front of the children as that can be seen as undermining his authority. It depends on if you want to focus on the hair cutting incident specifically, and talk about it soon; or whether you want to have a wider talk on bodily autonomy, which may happen later in the future.

    Either way you can use the hair cutting as an example. Ask him why he wanted the boys to get their hair cut like that, and not the girl. Is it because it's easier to take care of? To make them less likely to get head lice? Just because he thinks it looks better? Then after asking him to examine his own reasoning, gently suggest it might be a good idea to explain that reasoning to the children concerned. If he's "old-skool" he may think children should simply do what they're told without question, and see no reason to explain anything to them. Perhaps you could point out that this sort of approach is just begging them to have a big teenage rebellion which won't help anyone!

    You could ask him how he's coping, suddenly being presented with four children to whom he has to be a parental figure. It might be that the hair-cutting was a way of him trying to establish his authority, and if their mother agreed with him/backed him up it's a way of presenting a united front and showing he has their mother's support. This may not be the case of course, but allowing him the opportunity to talk through how he's feeling and coping could give you clues as to how to approach further conversation.

    It's a really complex issue, and you asked "how should I have handled the situation?", past tense. It's too late now, but asking to speak to him privately there and then and voicing your concerns and reasoning would be about the only thing you could do in the moment, and that might be a strategy to try in future.

    3 agree
  7. My children have mostly complete control over their hair. They are 5. My rules hair must be brushed or combed if it is long enough for it. Beyond that it all goes. My son at one time had hair to his shoulders. It's blond so I told him if he grew it he would make a great Thor for Halloween. So he grew it. I loved it and was so sad when he wanted it cut after Halloween. The only time I didn't give in is just a couple months ago. He wanted it shaved bald. I told them the shortest buzz cut they could do. I've told him I don't like the haircut and loved his hair long but he's made his decision. We've discussed consent with hugs ask if they want the hug. Most kids at 5 love hugs but if the kid says no or just pulls away they understand. At 14 a child even a boy has ideas on how they want their hair and as long as they keep it clean and neat there shouldn't be a problem. When it comes to kids growing up there are more important issues than hair and clothes. Hair grows out clothes can be changed. As long as clothes cover the important bits of course and no offensive messages.

  8. My mom had a great attitude towards my crazy hair wants – I could dye my hair whatever colour I wanted but couldn’t bleach it until I was 16. When I was old enough for the responsibility of driving I was old enough to be responsible for possibly killing my hair. Even when I was 13 I absolutely thought that was fair reasoning.

    1 agrees

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