This is a question asked by journalist Kelly Wallace on CNN and it is probably one asked by parents the world over.
Perhaps I should declare at this point that I am not a parent myself, so everything I write here is the result of research and thinking about it. What happens in real life… well, that’s another matter entirely. As for my own experiences as a child I would sit in the same room, reading the latest edition of the Beano or Dandy, as my mum got dressed. Not that I saw her naked as she would turn her back to me and use a dressing gown to provide a degree of privacy. I also grew up at a time when it was still common to have an outside lavatory and even now, I can see the lighted end of mum’s cigarette bobbing up and down as she chatted to me in the dark, as she used the loo. As for bath time, mum was given the most privacy with my brothers and I excluded from the kitchen where the old tin bath was located for the duration, a towel would be draped over a window in the kitchen door that would otherwise allowed light to filter throughout the ground floor. Dad was give some privacy from us boys but we had the least and mum and dad would wonder in and out of the kitchen as necessary while we were in the bath, even when my older brothers were in their teens. I tell you this just so you can put the rest of this post into context, but later my parents had a bathroom added to the house and we were given the same amount of privacy when we went to the toilet or had a bath, which was total. Only much later, when I briefly acted as carer for my mother did I see her naked.
So, back to the question in the title, when should parents stop being naked in front of their kids?
Kelly Wallace joked the only person who signed up for the privilege of seeing her naked was her husband, while her kids hadn’t. Yet, she doesn’t cover up in front of her daughters (aged seven and eight) as she’s getting dressed or in the bathroom as Wallace didn’t want them growing up thinking that there is anything wrong with her or their bodies. Wallace continued: ‘when they ask hilarious questions such as “Mom, why do your boobs hang?” I can’t help but laugh and use the opportunity as a chance to tell them my body has changed over time and theirs will too.’
In researching her article, Wallace spoke to parents all over North America and found, as with so many things in life, there is no one answer. One mother of three said that when their children were little, both she and her husband would not hide their bodies from them, as a way to teach them not to be ashamed of theirs. But, the mother admitted, as they got older her husband was more discrete around their daughters and she, their son, not because they had become uncomfortable with their nudity around their children but because they might be. [My emphasis]
For She Knows – a website for women to empower women – Michelle Maffei wrote an article that was introduced with: ‘Find out what the experts say about when you should start practising modesty around your youngsters’. By ‘experts’ it means two: Drs Fran Walfish and Carole Lieberman, who both say that by the time the child is six, parents should be setting an example by stopping shared bath times, and closing the door as they dressed or undressed. Yet, Maffei also writes: ‘Just keep in mind that presenting your children with a negative attitude towards nudity can cause your youngster to form a negative view of their own sexuality’
Canadian blogger, Julian Page, also asked if adult nudity had any impact, knowing that some parents took their young children to nude swims, and wondered if there would be a time when they stopped taking them. ‘Is there an age,’ she asks, ‘when children should not be seeing their parents naked [or hang out in] social nudism settings?’
In an attempt to answer that question, Page quoted another doctor – Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of Yale Parenting Centre – who told Yahoo Parenting: ‘All things considered, there is no one guideline as to what you should do and at what age. Culture makes a huge difference. Religion makes a huge difference as do parents’ own individual attitudes to the body.’ [My emphasis]
Two other Canadian bloggers (Her Bad Mother by Catherine Connors and PhD in Parenting by Annie) wrote in 2009 how their [then] young children enjoyed life without clothes. Connors even introduced her daughter as a: ‘…unrepentant clothes-doffing, underwear-eschewing, bum-baring, breeze-loving, parts-showing nudist.’ Even so, they worried they were passing on their own fears and insecurities about body image to their children and on to the next generation. Connors wrote: ‘I love that my daughter so exults in her physical being that she is so unreservedly comfortable with her physical self. And yet I catch myself, sometimes, pestering her about sweaters and socks and underpants.’
Meanwhile Annie, in PhD in Parenting, wrote: ‘When I hear stories about women who are ashamed to breastfeed in public, people who are ashamed to don a bathing suit, people who will only have sex in the dark, I wonder what happened to make them feel that way? Who told them to be ashamed of their bodies?’ Annie went on: ‘If they are to have a fighting chance of surviving those horrific influences on body image, I think our kids need our encouragement and support, in embracing and exploring their bodies as children.’
Neither blogger said they spent anytime naked with their children, as Connors wrote: ‘I’m not a compact little person, and I might knock over coffee mugs with my pendulous boobs and, also, frighten any passers-by who might look in the windows.’ Even so there were plenty of comments by readers of both blogs who admitted that they did and approved of the two women’s reasoning for allowing their children to be play naked.
Before you start thinking that all this is from the other side of the pond and therefore does not affect us Brits, The Daily Mail (28/08/2014) published an article that featured Jules Pomerance, a 44-year old mother of three who: ‘happily potters around the house in the nude, doesn’t wrap a towel around herself when she leaves the bathroom after a shower and she and husband Nigel (45) often enjoy a naked snuggle in bed with [their son and two daughters].’ While their daughters Daisy (ten) and Lily (seven) are still of an age not to raise too many concerns by such behaviour, their son Jordan is 13-years old and the article asked the question: Is it unhealthy for boys to see their mothers undressed once they have reached puberty or, indeed, at any age? Various experts were trotted out who mostly advised caution and the need for a defined boundary between mother and son created by covering up, but Pomerance said: ‘Nudity has nothing whatsoever to do with sex as far as I’m concerned, and as our son has already reached puberty it’s not going to make any difference now. If anything, I think that ‘normalising’ nudity is the best way of countering the over sexualisation of our children.’
Pomerance continued: ‘One reason I’m keen for my daughters to see me naked was because, last year, Lily started to comment that her thighs looked fat. I was horrified and wanted to show her that people come in all shapes and sizes and that no one looks like they do in fashion magazines, not even the models themselves.’
Jordan said: ‘I honestly don’t feel at all embarrassed about seeing my mum naked. It’s not as if she just suddenly started doing it. It is just normal in our house,’ adding that he wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a friend’s mother naked, admitting that: ‘most of my friend’s families are not like mine.’ Jordan also said he felt that it was good to be relaxed about nudity within the family and would probably do the same when he is a parent.
So on the one hand we have the experts who generally say that parents should begin to introduce privacy to a child by the time he or she are eight but at the same time they tell parents they shouldn’t do anything that would tell children their bodies are something shameful. Would not suddenly excluding them from the bathroom or bedroom, when they are used to seeing mum or dad getting dressed in the mornings or after a shower (or bath) do just that? Only then do the experts come out with the advice that children should guide the parents about when to do this, so what if like Jordan Pomerance they are just not bothered if they do see mum, dad and their brothers or sisters naked, or they him or her as they enter puberty? It seems to me that the experts are trying to cover every eventuality, which tells me that they don’t really know. That they are making it up as they go along and according to whatever they think the audience wants to hear. They know some things about child development certainly, but not everything although they try to give us the impression that they do.
Meanwhile, we have the practising parents who think that their nudity in front of the children, especially when younger, is a good thing as it shows that the human body is not shameful and comes in different shapes and sizes, however, they still worry what other parents think. Could this be a fear of creating an Oedipus complex perhaps? Could they be worried that other people will think there is something untoward going on?
With so much uncertainty around nudity within the family is it any wonder that naturism can be a concept that is hard to sell, especially with the all to frequent associations – real or imagined – with other dubious goings on. It is also easy for witnesses in court, when unable to justify their claims that a naturist is somehow a danger to other people by blurting out “But what about the children?” Well, what about the children. None of the experts or practising parents quoted above suggests that non-sexual nudity within or without the family leads to anything bad in the children but still doubts persists among the experts, parents, and perhaps just as importantly, the legal profession. As Wallace wrote in her ‘Brutally Honest’ post for CNN: ‘There doesn’t seem to be much science to help guide us on whether it’s better or worse for your child, or it makes no difference at all, if they see you naked. I couldn’t find many studies when I searched for them, and those I found had conflicting findings.’ It is for this reason that NAG, with BN, has launched Children and Nudity, a project to develop a study into the effects of non-sexual nudity on children, to be carried out by a sociology and/or psychological department of an academic institution.
In the meantime, as a non-parent, my thoughts are that parents should stick with their convictions and allow their children be naked, if they want to, and for parents be naked if they want to. However, respect the child who says they don’t want to get undressed or if they make a comment about your nudity. Practising parents or ‘retired’ parents may come to a different conclusion.