Child Caring

Nudity and the kids

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / March 27, 1989

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Should a mother undress in front of her 3-year-old son?

Should a father and a 6-year-old daughter shower together?

Parents' questions about being naked in front of their children are very common, reports Maurice Keenan of Newton, a pediatrician for 23 years. "I tend to bring it up if parents don't," he adds.

About the age of 2 to 3, at the same time that a child's language blossoms, so too does curiosity about her body and her parents' bodies. For the next two, three or four years, depending on the child, parents can expect questions that reflect a growing sense of gender -- Will my sister grow a penis? Why doesn't daddy have breasts? -- as well as a growing understanding of differences -- Why is daddy's penis bigger than mine? Will I grow hair like mommy?

Seeing parents naked is bound to promote such questions. Does that mean nudity is to be avoided or encouraged?

The answer depends on many things -- family values, the culture, a child's development. But most important is how comfortable parents are appearing naked in front of their children.

"If the parents feel natural and comfortable with it, it probably is very healthy," says child psychiatrist Jerry M. Wiener, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and chairman of the psychiatry department at George Washington Medical School.

Parents who are uneasy with nudity, perhaps because their own parents were uncomfortable with it, sometimes make a forced effort with their children

because they don't want them to grow up with the shame or anxiety they experienced. Keenan cautions these parents not to try to change overnight: children sense ambivalence and will be confused.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 15 percent of all children in the United States are at risk of being sexually abused, which indicates another category of parents: those who are salacious or abusive.

Susan Gere, a social worker and assistant professor of human sexuality at Lesley College, worries that some parents misinterpret advice to be natural as license to impose themselves on their children.

She cautions that the kind of parental nudity that can be healthy and educational for children is 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 significant problems later on.

Matter-of-fact nudity not only can be beautiful but can also be a learning tool that will carry over to healthy adult sexuality, according to Lynn Leight, a sexuality counselor in Miami and author of "Raising Sexually Healthy Children." "There's no end to the educational opportunities here," she says. She advises parents:

"You can tell your children how proud you are of your body, that you respect it and delight in it but you don't expose it to just anyone. That these are your private parts and you keep them covered. That only special people are allowed to touch them."

Nudity must also be considered in a cultural context. Parents who advocate nakedness, but not in a provocative way, often defend it by pointing to cultures where it is a norm.

Wiener says these parents are a little foolish. "There is no advantage for a child to be raised in a way that is contrary to what society will expect of him," he says. "You are setting your child up for conflict." He cites potential consequences for a child raised in a home where there is more nudity than the cultural standard: "We tend to see children who have difficulty with their own sexual identity, who have excessive inhibitions or not sufficient inhibitions."

Keenan says when children ask questions about the body, they are looking for simple answers. He recommends naming the body part with its correct name but not telling its function.

"You reduce anxiety by answering sincerely and you instill trust. Kids 5, 6 and 7 will find out sooner or later if you gave them the wrong answer," Keenan says.

Until a child is 3, most parents don't think twice about being naked. "In most houses with young kids," chuckles Keenan, "you can't avoid interference with your privacy."

But as the child becomes more aware, parents need to be, too. The age when parental modesty with opposite sex children should begin is controversial, however.

Wiener recommends 3, in part because some children's natural curiosity about bodies is sexually related. "Kids this age begin to develop competitive feelings about their parents. They want a more exclusive relationship with both parents but there are particularly intense feelings about a parent of the opposite sex." He advises: "It is best to deal with issues verbally."

Gere and Leight recommend 5. "It's a reasonable time for parents to be more concerned and private because the kids are," Gere says. By 7, the typical child not only wants personal privacy but also is embarrassed by any degree of parental nudity, Gere says.

Keenan argues the age of modesty should come sooner. "After 3, bathing with an opposite-sex child may not be particularly comfortable for parent or child," he says.

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

Keenan's 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?' "

Afterthought: The typical 6-year-old tends to be reckless, so parents need to stress safety. By the time that child turns 7, however, you may find yourself coaxing him to take a chance -- the typical 7-year-old tends to be overly cautious.