A long time ago, when I first started reading blogs, I came across the idea of bodily autonomy for children. The idea that children should never feel that they are not in control of what happens to their body, even as babies. My immediate reaction was that this was a great theory, but doomed to failure in practice. When I expressed this thought on blogs* I got various responses, but mostly variations around the idea that you teach kids what they need to know about looking after themselves and they mostly make sensible decisions. Also, most responses came with the caveat that in circumstances where the child was choosing to make completely inappropriate decisions about their body (like the 18 month old who is refusing to have the pooey nappy changed), the best way was to give them a choice between agreeing voluntarily or being forced. I can see that this is better than just forcing them, but it reminds me strongly of being told as a kid "Wipe that smile off your face or I'll wipe it off for you".
Anyway, as my kids grew up, I found the idea actually worked very well, especially with my eldest. He listened to advice and, apart from needing to be reminded about it, mostly followed it. I've helped him defend his right to wear his hair however he likes and other such things. He needs to be supported in asserting himself and this philosophy has worked very well. I'd almost completely forgotten my initial misgivings.
Then along came Second Born. I spent a lot more time defending other people's bodily autonomy from him than worrying about his bodily autonomy when he was little. In fact, we're still working on that. Then last year he was introduced to the phrase "My body, my rules" through the child protection stuff they did at school. It seems like such a sensible meme. But Charlie has an Aspergers brain, and therefore an amazing capacity for taking things literally - especially if it works in his favour. So now Charlie is using "My body, my rules" to justify not cleaning his teeth, not sleeping, not going to school, pretty much not doing anything he doesn't want to do at that moment. Or rather, he's trying to.
Reasoning with him doesn't work. If I explain these things are in his best interest, he claims he's thought it through, and decided the benefits are not worth it. His body, his rules. When they told him that, they didn't put any caveats on it. They didn't point out that his parents have a legal responsibility to ensure his health, education and so on. They didn't say that at some point his choices may be reduced to "do it by choice or be forced to do it." Because from a child protection point of view, that would completely undermine the whole thing. Unfortunately, from a Charlie point of view, he's been handed the ultimate pass. Or at least he thinks he has.
So in the end, I'm almost back where I started. Respecting children's bodily autonomy is definitely a good theory. I'm surprised to find that it works better in practice than I thought, with some children. Other children, however, have more than enough understanding of their own autonomy and need to be reminded that they are not yet adults, and as such need to have some decisions made for them. It all depends whether you have a child who will clean their teeth once they understand its importance, or you have a child who will refuse to clean their teeth just because they can.
*I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all the bloggers on whose corners of the web I said ignorant things and asked stupid questions. I would also like to thank all those who responded with patience that was above and beyond.