Naked bodies, your kids, and you

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 11, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
My question is about nudity of opposite sex parents. I am the mother of a 10-month-old boy, and I didn't have a healthy role model for when opposite sex parents should stop being unclothed in front of their children. I realize I am worrying about this a little on the early side, but when exactly is it the right time to start keeping covered up with one's opposite sex children? I want to give my son a healthy sense of the body being a beautiful and natural thing, but I don't want to cause the same kind of confusion and weirdness that my brother experienced in our house when my mother didn't cover up appropriately. When should I start making sure I am covered?

From: NewMom, Framingham

Dear New Mom,

This question comes up every now and then in one form or another. Obviously, people have many different opinions and many people say that if you, as the parent, are comfortable with nudity, your child will be, too. I get that in certain cases. A recent question that I didn't get to answer was from a single dad of a daughter, 5 or so, who walked in on him as he came out of the shower, pointed at his penis and asked, "What's that?!" This dad got flustered and told her, angrily, to leave and never to come in the bathroom without knocking. A better response would have been to grab a towel, cover up, and tell her matter-of-factly: "It's called a penis. Women have a vagina and men have a penis."

Let me put it another way: parental nudity can be healthy and educational for children if it's limited to "matter-of-fact" behavior: dressing, undressing, and bathroom activities. The child who is overexposed to adult sexuality, including intimate moments between parents, exhibitionism, or abuse, can have problems later on. I'm guessing that maybe your mom fell into one of those categories.

I think what you are looking for is a definitive answer from a developmental perspective. As far as I know, there is not agreement on this among sexuality experts. Some professionals I've interviewed say age 3 is the cut-off because that's when kids develop competitive feelings about parents. Others say you can wait until 5, sometimes even 7, because that's when kids become more interested in privacy for themselves.

Here's my rule of thumb: At any age, it's your degree of comfort as a parent that gets communicated, but it's the child's comfort level that needs to set the standard. Even if you're comfortable, if he's not, he's the one whose sensitivity needs to be honored.

One other thing to consider: By the time a child gets to 2 and 3, when kids develop language, a natural curiosity about the body, and a growing understanding of differences, seeing their parents naked is bound to prompt questions. Will I grow a penis? Why doesn't daddy have breasts? Why is daddy's penis bigger than mine? What don't I have hair like mommy?

If these questions will make you uncomfortable, cover up. Making a forced effort because you think it's "healthy" for your child, will only backfire.

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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6 comments so far...
  1. Nudity between family members should always be handled in a matter of fact way. Don't use slang terms for body parts. A Penis is a Penis. It is not and Dinky or Pee Pee. A Vulva is the part on a females groin that you can see, not the Vagina. The Vulva is not a buscuit or Hoo Hoo. By the way, the Vagina can not be seen on a woman because it is inside the body. As I said it is the Vulva that we see on a female. Being a nudist for many years I know children that have never stopped seeing their parents nude from birth to their 20's who are all very well adjusted, intelligent and productive members of society. That includes my own daughter.
    I know people will say that is fine for Nudists but we are not Nudists. While it stands to reason that if it is fine for Nudists and a very good portion of the rest of the world where "family nudity" is not uncommon then it is good and healthy for your family too.

    Posted by Kevin January 11, 11 07:00 AM
  1. Please, oh please, listen to #1. It is not cute, nor do you look Oh So Progessive, to have a two year old refer to her vagina. It's OK to know tasteful nicknames for the parts so long as they know the real words too. And "privates" covers all of that for discussion in public.

    Posted by di January 11, 11 10:15 AM
  1. Think about that age at which you would be uncomfortable with a friends child seeing you naked. Under two, and you probably wouldn't worry so much. As they approach three and four, you might begin to feel weird. Then maybe add a year because its your own child, maybe add another for same gender. After that, I would stress too much if your towel falls, or if they walk in on you. Its about teaching respectful boundaries, not shame.

    Posted by lala January 11, 11 10:32 AM
  1. In Europe, family nudity is no big deal, no matter what the age, just respect that other people may have different boundaries. Why should we feel shame / weird / embarrassed? Nudity is not sex, which is a different matter altogether.

    Posted by Jack Jones January 11, 11 04:36 PM
  1. I would like to see the studies that show it is unhealthy for kids to see parents without their clothes. Fact is there is no actual evidence that it does any harm, it's all based upon opinions and cultural attitudes.

    There is one legitimate study on this topic and it actually shows that it is either completely neutral or in some ways actually positive for kids to see their parents nude. Refer to the study by Dr. Okami (UCLA).

    Our current cultural attitudes are based upon Puritanical and Victorian morals which tend to view the naked body as sexual and evil. Thus one should cover up and hide their body so as not to tempt others or oneself. Whether you are Christian or not this is the prevailing attitude and cultural norm that has evolved over the past few centuries.

    You might also find that in other countries where family and functional nudity is no big deal rates of teen pregnancy and body perception are much lower. Only in the two most Puritanical countries (UK and US) is sexual crime and teen pregnancy such a major issue. Our rates dwarf the next closest industrialized nation.

    So why should a parent be embarrassed at answering a question about their anatomy from their child? They shouldn't be, you can easily answer it and move on. In fact, more than likely once you answer in a positive and truthful manner, the child will accept it and move on. Children are naturally curious, if you don't answer the question they'll go elsewhere to find that answer and you may not like where they get it.

    You will find however that where the parent responds in a negative fashion the risk of an unhealthy body perception is much greater. Regardless of whether you think it's OK to be seen by your child or not, it is critical that you always answer their questions in a positive manner and truthfully.

    Posted by David January 11, 11 07:02 PM
  1. I meant "wouldn't" stress too much in earlier post. Sorry.

    Posted by lalal January 11, 11 08:42 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. Nudity between family members should always be handled in a matter of fact way. Don't use slang terms for body parts. A Penis is a Penis. It is not and Dinky or Pee Pee. A Vulva is the part on a females groin that you can see, not the Vagina. The Vulva is not a buscuit or Hoo Hoo. By the way, the Vagina can not be seen on a woman because it is inside the body. As I said it is the Vulva that we see on a female. Being a nudist for many years I know children that have never stopped seeing their parents nude from birth to their 20's who are all very well adjusted, intelligent and productive members of society. That includes my own daughter.
    I know people will say that is fine for Nudists but we are not Nudists. While it stands to reason that if it is fine for Nudists and a very good portion of the rest of the world where "family nudity" is not uncommon then it is good and healthy for your family too.

    Posted by Kevin January 11, 11 07:00 AM
  1. Please, oh please, listen to #1. It is not cute, nor do you look Oh So Progessive, to have a two year old refer to her vagina. It's OK to know tasteful nicknames for the parts so long as they know the real words too. And "privates" covers all of that for discussion in public.

    Posted by di January 11, 11 10:15 AM
  1. Think about that age at which you would be uncomfortable with a friends child seeing you naked. Under two, and you probably wouldn't worry so much. As they approach three and four, you might begin to feel weird. Then maybe add a year because its your own child, maybe add another for same gender. After that, I would stress too much if your towel falls, or if they walk in on you. Its about teaching respectful boundaries, not shame.

    Posted by lala January 11, 11 10:32 AM
  1. In Europe, family nudity is no big deal, no matter what the age, just respect that other people may have different boundaries. Why should we feel shame / weird / embarrassed? Nudity is not sex, which is a different matter altogether.

    Posted by Jack Jones January 11, 11 04:36 PM
  1. I would like to see the studies that show it is unhealthy for kids to see parents without their clothes. Fact is there is no actual evidence that it does any harm, it's all based upon opinions and cultural attitudes.

    There is one legitimate study on this topic and it actually shows that it is either completely neutral or in some ways actually positive for kids to see their parents nude. Refer to the study by Dr. Okami (UCLA).

    Our current cultural attitudes are based upon Puritanical and Victorian morals which tend to view the naked body as sexual and evil. Thus one should cover up and hide their body so as not to tempt others or oneself. Whether you are Christian or not this is the prevailing attitude and cultural norm that has evolved over the past few centuries.

    You might also find that in other countries where family and functional nudity is no big deal rates of teen pregnancy and body perception are much lower. Only in the two most Puritanical countries (UK and US) is sexual crime and teen pregnancy such a major issue. Our rates dwarf the next closest industrialized nation.

    So why should a parent be embarrassed at answering a question about their anatomy from their child? They shouldn't be, you can easily answer it and move on. In fact, more than likely once you answer in a positive and truthful manner, the child will accept it and move on. Children are naturally curious, if you don't answer the question they'll go elsewhere to find that answer and you may not like where they get it.

    You will find however that where the parent responds in a negative fashion the risk of an unhealthy body perception is much greater. Regardless of whether you think it's OK to be seen by your child or not, it is critical that you always answer their questions in a positive manner and truthfully.

    Posted by David January 11, 11 07:02 PM
  1. I meant "wouldn't" stress too much in earlier post. Sorry.

    Posted by lalal January 11, 11 08:42 PM
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About the author

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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