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.
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