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: