Parental nudity

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 12, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

My 3 1/2-year-old son and his dad (my husband) took a shower together about two weeks ago. We think it is acceptable since they are the same gender to shower together. Our babysitter (in-home daycare) found out that they showered together and she had issues with it. It was such an issue, we stopped going to our babysitter and moved to a new daycare. Is it acceptable for a 3 1/2-year-old boy to take a shower with his dad?

From: Upset Mom, Dubuque, Iowa

Dear Upset Mom,

Good for you! Leaving that babysitter is exactly what I would have done. If she's uptight (and plain wrong) about this, what else is she uptight and inappropriate about?

A father and 3 1/2-year-old son (and mother and 3 1/2-year-old daughter) CAN shower together. OK -- wait. I take it back. The only reason it wouldn't be a good idea is if the child was unhappy or upset about it in some way. I'm guessing he thought it was fun, though.

With opposite sex parent/child nudity, there here are developmental issues that typically crop up in the 3- to 5-year-old. Your child will let you know when that is, usually by asking some pointed questions about the body of the opposite sex parent.

The rule of thumb generally is this: If you feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny or questions of your 4-year-old son/daughter of the same or opposite sex, it's time to cover up. Be matter-of-fact. Most kids won't notice that you were naked in front of them and now aren't.

If you're someone who takes baths with your opposite sex child and it starts to feel uncomfortable, wear a bathing suit. Your child will think it's fun. At some point, between 5 and 7, your child will move on to another developmental stage where he/she values privacy and the idea of sharing a bath with any parent, even with a sibling, is, well, icky.

Probably your babysitter's strong reaction has something to do with her own upbringing. Some parents simply aren't comfortable at all with nudity and pass that along, and in some families (I'm not saying hers, just in general), there is a history of abuse that makes the concept of parental/child nudity horrifying.

Because of the risk that some parents will interpret this information as license to impose themselves on their children, let's be 100 % clear: I'm talking about matter-of-fact nudity centered around dressing, undressing, and bathroom activities.

I tackled this subject in a column once. Let me share the end of it:

"At any age, though, your degree of comfort as a parent is what gets communicated. If an 8-year-old bursts in on a father who has just gotten out of the shower, a lot depends on how the father handles it.

"[My] vote is for a matter-of-fact father who reaches for the towel and says, 'How about giving me a few minutes to dry off and then you can come back and use the mirror?'"

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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15 comments so far...
  1. My mother was always very comfortable being naked in front of my sister and I, and I think it was a good thing. For one thing, there were no mysteries about body hair, breasts, etc.as we got older. We knew what a grown woman looked like! Also, as an adult I am very comfortable being naked - I don't parade around in public scantily clad or anything, but I am comfortable at home, in private. You don't want to raise your kids to think there's something wrong or shameful about their bodies, and showing them you aren't is a good start.

    Posted by Q October 12, 10 09:34 AM
  1. Barbara, for those of us who are at least slightly bothered by the idea of a child and parent bathing together, can you please explain why this is necessary?

    I certainly don't want to sit in a bathtub with a toddler unless she's wearing Swimmies, which certainly doesn't serve the purpose.

    And what toddler wants to take a shower? Especially if he's getting dad's leftover soap in his eyes?

    I just don't get it.

    Posted by just-cos October 12, 10 09:58 AM
  1. Hi just-cos,

    I don't think that Barbara was saying that it was necessary, just that if both the parent and child are comfortable with it and enjoy it, that it is not a bad thing. In your case, you are uncomfortable with it, so it is just fine for you not to do so.

    Posted by whoisdagney October 12, 10 10:28 AM
  1. dear just-cos,

    Its not "necessary", sometimes its just easier. It saves water and time. My girls liked taking showers and bathes with me when they were little--they thought it was fun and it was easier to wash their hair. Interestingly, both are comfortable with their bodies, but one is much more reserved about it.

    Now you tell me...why are you bothered by it?

    Posted by ash October 12, 10 10:36 AM
  1. In response to the last comment, I don't think it's "necessary". But I did that with my daughter when she was younger because it was fun--for both of us. We also did it because it introduced her to showers (she was scared), I could wash her hair for her, which was fun for her, and show her how it works to take a shower. Lots of kids like showers!!

    I agree about the toddler thing (for the most part), but am not sure how that's relevant, since this was talking about 3-5 year olds.

    Posted by Robin Einzig October 12, 10 10:42 AM
  1. I totally agree with Q.
    My toddler takes a shower NOT a tub.... because he doesn't like taking tubs. He took tubs when he was an infant and early into to toddlerhood. I used to have my son shower with me or his dad...either way. He now wants to shower by himself to show that he can do it by himself. So will yours. And like Q said,showering or bathing with a trusted parent (only -of course) teaches them there is nothing to be ashamed of. And yes there is less mystery. There's nothing wrong with it at this age. It isn't like he's say 9 years old or something. You're not crossing the lines here. I do agree that the babysitter is a little out of touch here. Good for you for switching caretakers!!! I would have too.

    Posted by JD October 12, 10 10:55 AM
  1. Just had a stroll down memory lane, remembering how much fun I had bathing with my kids when they were little. We have a big tub with plenty of room and I found it much easier to just get in myself instead of trying to reach over the side of the tub to wash them. We'd make up silly games with the bath toys and write words on the side of the tub with the foam letters. My husband and I both enjoyed this and would argue over who got to do the bath and who had to do the dishes. It's too bad the babysitter couldn't understand it - maybe something happened to her as a kid. Overall I think some nudity in a family is healthy. I'd rather have my teen walk naked from the bathroom to his room than leave a wet towel on the bed (and yes I have tried my darndest to instill proper towel rack usage).

    Posted by Cordelia October 12, 10 11:45 AM
  1. "Your child will let you know when that is, usually by asking some pointed questions about the body of the opposite sex parent."
    Out of curiosity (and since my son is about to turn 3, and I'm regularly matter-of-factly nude in front of him because it's easier than hiding), what sort of questions are you talking about? My son has been observing and mentioning the fact that he has a penis and that his younger sister and I don't... is that what you mean?

    Posted by Carriefran October 12, 10 02:59 PM
  1. Somewhat off topic; but at my gym I've seen women bringing 6-8 year old boys into the ladies locker room. They don't want to send them alone into the men's locker room. At that age they should not be seeing Mommy naked and they certainly should not be seeing ME!

    Posted by Honk October 12, 10 03:32 PM
  1. Hey Carriefan,

    The questions about body differences (Why is your/daddy's penis bigger than mine? Will I have breasts when I grow up? Why don't I have a vagina?) are normal, healthy and easy-to-answer. (When you're a daddy, your penis will be big, too.) What typically makes a parent uncomfortable is when a 5-year-old pointedly stares at mom or dad's body part, asks to touch it (or just does without asking) or "see it up close," as one child once put it. It's not that these aren't typical or healthy questions, either; but they are a tip-off that a child has moved into a new stage of development where books, rather than parents' bodies, are better sources for learning.

    While, I'm here, Q, Whoisdagney hit the nail on the head; not necessary.

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page October 12, 10 04:11 PM
  1. Coincidentally one of the other advice columnists somewhere had a Q about this today too. Her recommendation? Don't wait until the kid expresses discomfort or embarassment, but phase out by 4 or 5. Make it about being a big kid who can wash themselves, not about bodies, and it will be no big deal.

    Posted by di October 12, 10 06:36 PM
  1. Fire the sitter for being uptight and not the kind of influence you want around your child. I'd make a point of letting people on the local parenting bulletin boards know what kind of negative body image she's going to teach their children while I was at it.

    If Americans as a whole have some major hang-ups...bodies and nudity are very high on that list. As someone who wants her daughter to not have the body hangups that society wants to thrust upon her, nudity is part of her day and she feels no shame.

    Kids learn shame when adults teach it to them. Let the desire for privacy evolve naturally and avoid shaming anyone but the prude of a sitter.

    Posted by C October 13, 10 01:41 AM
  1. The idea of sitting in a bathtub with peeing toddlers is what skeeves me out.

    Posted by just-cos October 13, 10 10:14 AM
  1. Both my wife and I will shower with our 5 year-old son and we have bathed with him frequently from time to time since he was very young. There is nothing sexual or wrong with this and we are just getting clean together. If you think there is something wrong about a parent being nude around their child then I'd have to question what is going on in your head that is amiss. This is just nature..

    Posted by Scott L. November 25, 10 12:31 AM
  1. I wish I could have taken and hense share the many times I want to public baths in Japan and witnessed the amazing bonding between parent (father) and child while bathing. How sad it must be for so many American parents to never ever have shared such inocents.

    Posted by jbf November 25, 10 01:11 AM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. My mother was always very comfortable being naked in front of my sister and I, and I think it was a good thing. For one thing, there were no mysteries about body hair, breasts, etc.as we got older. We knew what a grown woman looked like! Also, as an adult I am very comfortable being naked - I don't parade around in public scantily clad or anything, but I am comfortable at home, in private. You don't want to raise your kids to think there's something wrong or shameful about their bodies, and showing them you aren't is a good start.

    Posted by Q October 12, 10 09:34 AM
  1. Barbara, for those of us who are at least slightly bothered by the idea of a child and parent bathing together, can you please explain why this is necessary?

    I certainly don't want to sit in a bathtub with a toddler unless she's wearing Swimmies, which certainly doesn't serve the purpose.

    And what toddler wants to take a shower? Especially if he's getting dad's leftover soap in his eyes?

    I just don't get it.

    Posted by just-cos October 12, 10 09:58 AM
  1. Hi just-cos,

    I don't think that Barbara was saying that it was necessary, just that if both the parent and child are comfortable with it and enjoy it, that it is not a bad thing. In your case, you are uncomfortable with it, so it is just fine for you not to do so.

    Posted by whoisdagney October 12, 10 10:28 AM
  1. dear just-cos,

    Its not "necessary", sometimes its just easier. It saves water and time. My girls liked taking showers and bathes with me when they were little--they thought it was fun and it was easier to wash their hair. Interestingly, both are comfortable with their bodies, but one is much more reserved about it.

    Now you tell me...why are you bothered by it?

    Posted by ash October 12, 10 10:36 AM
  1. In response to the last comment, I don't think it's "necessary". But I did that with my daughter when she was younger because it was fun--for both of us. We also did it because it introduced her to showers (she was scared), I could wash her hair for her, which was fun for her, and show her how it works to take a shower. Lots of kids like showers!!

    I agree about the toddler thing (for the most part), but am not sure how that's relevant, since this was talking about 3-5 year olds.

    Posted by Robin Einzig October 12, 10 10:42 AM
  1. I totally agree with Q.
    My toddler takes a shower NOT a tub.... because he doesn't like taking tubs. He took tubs when he was an infant and early into to toddlerhood. I used to have my son shower with me or his dad...either way. He now wants to shower by himself to show that he can do it by himself. So will yours. And like Q said,showering or bathing with a trusted parent (only -of course) teaches them there is nothing to be ashamed of. And yes there is less mystery. There's nothing wrong with it at this age. It isn't like he's say 9 years old or something. You're not crossing the lines here. I do agree that the babysitter is a little out of touch here. Good for you for switching caretakers!!! I would have too.

    Posted by JD October 12, 10 10:55 AM
  1. Just had a stroll down memory lane, remembering how much fun I had bathing with my kids when they were little. We have a big tub with plenty of room and I found it much easier to just get in myself instead of trying to reach over the side of the tub to wash them. We'd make up silly games with the bath toys and write words on the side of the tub with the foam letters. My husband and I both enjoyed this and would argue over who got to do the bath and who had to do the dishes. It's too bad the babysitter couldn't understand it - maybe something happened to her as a kid. Overall I think some nudity in a family is healthy. I'd rather have my teen walk naked from the bathroom to his room than leave a wet towel on the bed (and yes I have tried my darndest to instill proper towel rack usage).

    Posted by Cordelia October 12, 10 11:45 AM
  1. "Your child will let you know when that is, usually by asking some pointed questions about the body of the opposite sex parent."
    Out of curiosity (and since my son is about to turn 3, and I'm regularly matter-of-factly nude in front of him because it's easier than hiding), what sort of questions are you talking about? My son has been observing and mentioning the fact that he has a penis and that his younger sister and I don't... is that what you mean?

    Posted by Carriefran October 12, 10 02:59 PM
  1. Somewhat off topic; but at my gym I've seen women bringing 6-8 year old boys into the ladies locker room. They don't want to send them alone into the men's locker room. At that age they should not be seeing Mommy naked and they certainly should not be seeing ME!

    Posted by Honk October 12, 10 03:32 PM
  1. Hey Carriefan,

    The questions about body differences (Why is your/daddy's penis bigger than mine? Will I have breasts when I grow up? Why don't I have a vagina?) are normal, healthy and easy-to-answer. (When you're a daddy, your penis will be big, too.) What typically makes a parent uncomfortable is when a 5-year-old pointedly stares at mom or dad's body part, asks to touch it (or just does without asking) or "see it up close," as one child once put it. It's not that these aren't typical or healthy questions, either; but they are a tip-off that a child has moved into a new stage of development where books, rather than parents' bodies, are better sources for learning.

    While, I'm here, Q, Whoisdagney hit the nail on the head; not necessary.

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz Author Profile Page October 12, 10 04:11 PM
  1. Coincidentally one of the other advice columnists somewhere had a Q about this today too. Her recommendation? Don't wait until the kid expresses discomfort or embarassment, but phase out by 4 or 5. Make it about being a big kid who can wash themselves, not about bodies, and it will be no big deal.

    Posted by di October 12, 10 06:36 PM
  1. Fire the sitter for being uptight and not the kind of influence you want around your child. I'd make a point of letting people on the local parenting bulletin boards know what kind of negative body image she's going to teach their children while I was at it.

    If Americans as a whole have some major hang-ups...bodies and nudity are very high on that list. As someone who wants her daughter to not have the body hangups that society wants to thrust upon her, nudity is part of her day and she feels no shame.

    Kids learn shame when adults teach it to them. Let the desire for privacy evolve naturally and avoid shaming anyone but the prude of a sitter.

    Posted by C October 13, 10 01:41 AM
  1. The idea of sitting in a bathtub with peeing toddlers is what skeeves me out.

    Posted by just-cos October 13, 10 10:14 AM
  1. Both my wife and I will shower with our 5 year-old son and we have bathed with him frequently from time to time since he was very young. There is nothing sexual or wrong with this and we are just getting clean together. If you think there is something wrong about a parent being nude around their child then I'd have to question what is going on in your head that is amiss. This is just nature..

    Posted by Scott L. November 25, 10 12:31 AM
  1. I wish I could have taken and hense share the many times I want to public baths in Japan and witnessed the amazing bonding between parent (father) and child while bathing. How sad it must be for so many American parents to never ever have shared such inocents.

    Posted by jbf November 25, 10 01:11 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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