Are We Really Damaging Our Children?
Last October a family sought refuge on Studland Beach after their boat began to sink. Later, after the cabin cruiser had been towed back into Poole harbour, an RNLI spokeswoman confirmed that while the family was shaken, they were otherwise unharmed. She then went on to say: ‘but the children had the additional trauma of the surroundings so they were taken on board the inshore lifeboat and distracted from the scene.’
Really! I would have thought the trauma was having their parents’ boat sink under them! In such circumstances, any assistance would have been gratefully received and the fact that those providing it weren’t wearing any clothes was the last thing on any of their minds. Apparently though, this boating family frequently sailed – or should it be cruised – passed Studland Beach, suggesting that the whole family, children included, were used to seeing naked people at this point of their journey, so the RNLI spokesperson was simply wrong in her assumptions. I bet the children were excited about having a ride on the lifeboat though.
Anyway, it got me thinking are children really traumatized by nudity?
In seeking background reading for this article I came across any number of websites that offers the worried parent advice about this or that issue, and a fair few had a question, which this one from About.com was fairly typical.
‘When does family nudity become inappropriate? My son is three and I never gave a second thought to getting dressed in front of him or even bringing him into the shower with me, but my husband says that a little modesty and privacy is in order. He also doesn’t like that I put our son in the bath with his 18-month-old sister. This is really becoming an issue as I don’t see anything wrong with any of it.’
The basic consensus for the answers given was that it was fine for parents and young children to be nude together, but the parents should take cues from the children themselves as to when they should cover up. That cue, according to About.com was when a child closed the bathroom door when it went to the toilet or his (or her of course) bedroom door to get dressed, or when they ask if they could take a bath or shower without mum or dad hovering over them. It thought this would happen when the child was aged about three or four years.
The comments that followed, generally accepted the article’s advice adding the proviso that parents should take the lead by ending family nudity once the child had turn three anyway, even if he hadn’t shown any desire to stop by then. None said how they decided on the age of three as the point when family nudity should stop, but it does fall into line with the advice given by Dr Benjamin Spock, who wrote several books about parenting and childcare, and is still considered authority on the subject despite his death in 1998.
Yet another comment thought the time to stop family nudity was down to individual parent’s values and naturists, of course, have a particular set of values. Interestingly, Time explored that subject in 2003, publishing an article entitled Nudist Family Values by John Cloud, which concentrated on the Summer Camps AANR was running at the time. A Congressman – Mark Foley (Republican) – attacked the camps, telling the then Florida Governor Jed Bush they were: ‘exploiting nudity among minor children to make money,’ and was worried that campers were ‘in danger of sexual abuse’. In the article, Cloud admitted that naturists had been equally concerned that the lifestyle was perhaps harmful to their children. After a five-year study: Smith, Sparks and Kurstin-Young, wrote the book Growing Up Without Shame in 1986 and they could not find any evidence that it was. However, because it was published as a book rather than as a scientific paper in a academic journal, it was not scientifically validated and dismissed by Dr David Fassler, a fellow of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Clearly none of this actually answers the question posed, but that might be because a definitive answer is difficult to arrive at. This is according to WE Hartman, who produced a summary of research conducted into the subject for Free Beaches New Zealand, which if I was honest, is not the easiest thing to read purely through its layout. Anyhow, Hartman referred to Smith and Sparks, who cited numerous examples of naturist families and groups who kept that aspect of their lives hidden for fear that others might disapprove of their lifestyle, because of the lack of academic research to support them, and so creating a perfect vicious circle. In an earlier study, Alayne Yates put the paucity of research into the general subject of children’s sexuality (which included family nudity) as a reason for the scarcity of concise reference materials for parents and educators. Yates added that in the US particularly, such research was often considered as either: unnecessary, intrusive or evil, and these impediments to research present a particular problem to families and groups (e.g. naturists) who do not share the prevailing view about childcare.
Hartman also discovered in Smith and Sparks that Dr Spock carried out no research of his own to validate his claims that family nudity beyond the age of three is harmful to children. We therefore have professionals dismissing a five-year study because it had not been through the system and peer-reviewed, while relying on a hypothesis that had not been researched to any standard because of who thought it.
Vanessa Woods, an Australian anthropologist living in the US, asked in her blog (Your Inner Bonobo) for Psychologist Today the same question that I asked: ‘Are children traumatized by nudity?’ She explained that she was talking to a student that had just returned from Australia and asked if he enjoyed looking at all the women sunbathing topless. Apparently it is a young American male’s favourite pastime ‘down under’. Not with this particular student though, for according to Woods he was aghast by the very idea of women displaying their breasts in public, especially in front of children. Hence her question to her readers, admitting to being puzzled by the American student’s attitude to the naked female breast. ‘After all what do children stare at for the first year of their life,’ wrote Woods, ‘but a female breast?’
A comment written by Briton Keith Marshall, who blogs under the name of Zen Mischief, blamed this attitude to the Puritanism that influenced English and US society in the 16th and 17th centuries. Marshall went on to state that he didn’t believed that children were traumatized by nudity unless – or until – adults told them to be. Another respondent (an Australian) added: ‘Australia has become a lot more like America in the last 20-years in its attitudes to breasts and nudity in general. I think those neurotic thought patterns are more dangerous to a child’s personality than simply accepting the human body for what it is – a form of nature that does not harm anybody. A third respondent said: ‘if people – particularly parents – normalised nudity the