When my girls were babies, some of my most treasured moments were when they would explore my face, arms, and hands with their tiny little hands and their expressive eyes and smiles. I would try to freeze and capture these moments in my mind so that I could remember them later. This was before I had a cell phone with a camera, let alone a video camera, to record these beautiful interactions. Today, I can remember to some degree, what it was like to have my children interact with smiles and coos as we stared back and forth at each other while their hands patted and pulled at my face or fingers. Each daughter at her earliest age was getting to know her self and me, through our bodies. Our self is expressed through our body. It seems that babies know what the rest of us have forgotten – that the body expresses a person. And then it changes.
It’s no wonder that we forget that we are body-selves. Some of the earliest messages that we receive start what can be a lifelong journey of separation and tension between our selves and our bodies. Consider what a Common Sense Media brief says about young children and their view of the body, “Almost as soon as preschoolers complete the developmental task of mastering a concept of their bodies, they begin to express concerns about their bodies, taking their cues from peers, adults, and media around them.” It starts young, and I hear from adult male and female clients about the strained relationship they have with their body and the history that created this strain. I can see this in my own life as well. An integrated view of the body-self, the idea that my body expresses my person, can be new and maybe even uncomfortable. Some of us are used to deriving value from our body, and some of us are used to thinking our body (or what has happened to our body in instances of abuse or physical limitations) diminishes our value. (We’ll really explore that in an upcoming blog.) But most of us are not used to considering our body as an expression of our person. If you and I aren’t used to viewing ourselves as body-selves, then our children certainly aren’t either. But we want them to inherit a different view of themselves and their bodies, right? Yes! Or you wouldn’t be reading THE conversation workshop blog!
So, how can we impart a different view of the body? A view that is truer to what our children embodied when they were very young? We need to go back to the beginning. We need to remind ourselves of how this Story that we find ourselves in, began. As parents and those that work with youth, we want to introduce children and students to the proper context for conversations about our bodies. We’ve lost our way in truly understanding the relationship between body and self: but, “In the beginning, it was not so!” (Matthew 19:8)
Let’s consider John 1:1 before going back to Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Theology of the Body describes this as the Eternal Exchange of Love. Love given, Love received, Love returned. Genesis 1 and 2 tells us that our story begins out of this exchange. God, overflowing with Love says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). In the midst of the beauty and splendor of creation, God in three persons creates the first embodied person, Adam. He is different in form and origin than any other created thing. He has the first body that expresses a person. And it is through his body that Adam relates to God and the animals and Eden. Not only is his the first human body (and the only body expressing Adam), but we see something else unique to his creation.
“Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Adam’s creation encompasses what is visible and what is invisible. “The body, in fact, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine” (TOB 19: 4, 2-20-1980). As beings with body and soul, our bodies reveal who we are. We can only be known through our bodies.
The body expresses a person.
This is how we are known. This is how we know others. And THIS is the context in which we want to have conversations about the body with our kids. This changes the conversation about our bodies, relationships, and sex. Because now the body is no longer something that we talk about apart from our person – it expresses our person and is therefore talked about in a completely different way with completely different and life-changing implications. We will explore some of these implications over the course of the next few blogs.
For now, experiment with this idea that we are body-selves. Find ways to model and talk with the kids in your life in a way that acknowledges the body as an expression who he or she is: The body as an expression of their person. Here are some ideas:
Start connecting his body to his self. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I see the value in this for children of any age. Remember the Common Sense Media brief mentioned earlier? Kids learn around pre-school age from a variety of cues, to start viewing the body as separate from the person; something to be judged based strictly on external appearances. We want kids to instead understand that the body expresses a person, the two are connected: that what happens to my body happens to my self, and what is happening to my self, impacts or shows up in my body. This concept sets a framework that informs the rest of your conversations about the body, relationships, and sex. By introducing this to a child we are inviting him or her to a view of the body-self that is integrated. Some practical ways to begin laying the foundation for this concept could include: If a child comes to you saying he or she is hungry, ask questions about how he knows he is hungry. “How does your body tell you that you are hungry?” If you can tell that she is tired by how she is behaving and what her body is doing, point this out using curious questions. “Do you think your body-self might be tired?” “Where do you feel tired in your body?” If she isn’t aware that she is tired, she can still practice being aware of what her body is feeling and where, and how this might be connected to what her self is feeling and expressing through her body. Adjust your questions based on the child’s age and level of insight. For example, I know that my youngest daughter is scared or feeling vulnerable when her body-self has certain behaviors and I have just begun to point it out. “I’ve noticed that you want to be very close to me right now. I think I’ve picked up some clues that when you’re nervous you express this by physically sticking close to me. What do you think might be making you nervous right now? Where can you feel the nervousness in your body?”
Another way to introduce this idea that we are body-selves and change the conversation about bodies with kids is to remind them that their bodies express their unrepeatable and irreplaceable person in an unrepeatable and irreplaceable way. Sure, there may be doppelgangers (if your child knows what this is) and identical twins, but each person is expressed through his or her own body in a way that no person ever has before, or ever will! Our kids need to know this.
Finally, I love the phrase, “I see you,” from the movie, Avatar. I’m not the only one and I heard this first from Christopher West. Let kids know that you see THEM. Be curious about them. Let him know you see HIM, not his clothes or height. Let her know you see HER, not her clothes or her hair or make-up. Maintain eye contact with kids. We can put the screen, book, or project down when talking to him or her (I so need this reminder!) and be mindfully present with the body-self in front of us. This is modeling how to “see” people. We can also teach kids to learn to “see” people, not just bodies. Start introducing the sentence, “When I look at you, I see ____________________________” and fill in the blank with something that describes the person not just a physical characteristic. There are ideas as to ways to fill in this blank in our downloadable conversation tool, “Image of God for Elementary” .
If you have specific questions about the body expressing a person or would like to talk about particular situations, please send us your questions here. That’s what our Q&A page is for! We love tackling these questions with you.