Naked Kids, Naked Parents: What’s Appropriate? (Part I)

This article was originally published on Advocates for Youth’s Birds and Bees Blog.  
The count-down to my daughter’s fourth birthday has definitely begun (if you ask, she will say she’s three-and-three-quarters) and with it, as with any new milestone, comes some new questions about appropriate behavior.  Last week the questions were all about nudity.  

Up until the age of two, no one seems at all concerned about kids being naked in front of other people or parents being naked in front of kids; after all two-year olds are still really babies and naked babies are cute.  And, on the flip side, how aware are they, really, that their parents are naked?  But the lines start to blur around three and get even more questionable as the toddler turns into a preschooler and the preschooler starts looking and acting much more like a miniature adult.

Last week, two independent events brought up separate but related questions:  When does it stop being okay for her to run around naked in front other people and when does it stop being okay for her to see us naked?

Let’s start with the first question about naked kids (stay tuned for the naked parent part).

The first thing that happened last week was a play date between Charlie and two other friends. We’re still at the stage where most play dates involve children in one room and parents in another.  And Charlie is in a stage where most play dates seem to involve numerous changes of clothes – whether it is swapping clothes with the friends so they can wear each other’s outfits or taking clothes off to put on princess dresses, ballet outfits, or the Wonder Women costume my mother-in-law made her, every time the children come tearing through the living room, they are wearing something new.  And inevitably, at some point during the play date they come tearing through the living room wearing nothing at all.  This usually elicits fits of giggles, especially last Thursday when she and her friend Molly decided to bump tushies as they ran.

Molly’s mom and I are used to it. And, in all honesty, we think it’s pretty damn cute.  We just laughed.  The other mother, however, did not.  Though she said nothing, she was clearly a little less-than- comfortable with the situation.

Last year, an article in the New York Times, entitled, “When Do They Need Fig Leaves?,“ examined the issue of naked kids and found  lots of different opinions from both parents and experts. Is it okay at 4, at 6, at 10?  In the house?  In the backyard?  When guests are over? Moms and dads in the article disagreed with each other, parents disagreed with grandparents, and experts provided no hard-and-fast rules.  I think that’s because there are none.  All kids are different and all parents have different opinions and different values.  And I think this is one area where you have to go with your gut instinct and provide a careful explanation.

I try to balance helping Charlie have a positive view of her naked body as something that is beautiful and not to be ashamed of with helping her understand etiquette and appropriate behavior.  For example, when we were having work done on the house and the contractors arrived before 8 am, I would make sure we both got dressed before we came downstairs and explained that we needed privacy from Joe and the guys.  When she lifted up her dress at the park thinking it was funny to show everyone her underwear, I gently suggested that it wasn’t such a good idea.   And, though I usually say nothing about the naked play dates, I occasionally use them as teachable moments.  One day, when she and her friend Keira came into the room and shed their tutus, Charlie suggested, giggling, that they take their underwear off too. Keira seemed a little reluctant.  So I stepped in and said casually, “maybe you should leave your underwear on because vulvas and tushies are private.“  They agreed and ran off for the next wardrobe change (if I remember correctly, it was bathing suits so they could play beach).

Just as I took my cue to step in from Keira, I plan to take most of my cues from my daughter.  Kids do develop a natural sense of modesty and it does begin around three or four.  An adult friend of mine says she can pinpoint the moment it happened for her; she was four and she had gone to a fair wearing a pair of patterned overalls with no shirt underneath, the straps were thin, and to this day she has a vivid recollection of feeling uncomfortable that everyone could see her nipples. While I can’t point to an exact date, I certainly remember wanting to get dressed in my own room with the door shut so no one could see me naked.  In fact, I already see the concept of privacy taking shape in Charlie. She now asks for privacy when she poops.  Her rules are still loose – often that means that only I can see her but sometimes she’ll say daddy can too because he lives at her house and other times she’ll extend it to Nana and Juby because they are her grandmothers and they’re girls.

So, on this subject I will live by her rules, knowing that someday she will put her clothes on in her room and even I will rarely see her naked.  (There is one important exception I will make, however. Now that she is four, an age that seems to be on the other side of the nudity line for some people, there may come a time when her nudity clearly makes a guest, a relative, or one of her friends uncomfortable, and I will have to tell her in the most matter-of-fact way possible that she should put her clothes back on, at least for that moment.)


Part two of this article talks about naked parents (possibly even trickier).

9 thoughts on “Naked Kids, Naked Parents: What’s Appropriate? (Part I)

  1. Four? Really? Four?

    I’ve watched my boys come home from swim lessons and strip off their damp swimsuits before jumping in our pool.  My 9 year old is very comfortable in his own skin and strips off his clothes at any opportunity.  We will sometimes torment him by calling out, “oh, hi Isabel!” just to remind him of the possibility of exposure (and ok, because it’s fun to make him jump) but there’s no real internal modesty there.

    Recently my bathroom obsessed cat nudged the door open to lie at my feet as I sat on the throne.  Followed by DS1, who crouched in front of me and started grooming him. I said, “um, dude?” and he replied in an exasperated voice, “mom, I have to get these burrs out of his fur!”  Followed by DS2, who also squeezed in front of me to pet the cat, then looked up and said, “mom, don’t you need your privacy?”  “Well, if I did, I’d be in trouble now, wouldn’t I?”

  2. Naked kids

    I think 4 is probably the upper limit “in public” or with anyone other than your closest friends.  My DS11 has been “private” in front of me for a year or so, but every so often he forgets he’s supposed to be shy in front of me and walks around naked.

    DD took showers with DH until she was about 3 – I think when she started grabbing at his penis he started to be “shy” around her LOL

    DD19 seems comfortable naked in front of me, not in front of DH, but I think that’s OK too!

    I am seldom naked in front of either kid now  - partly modesty, partly not lovin’ the bod enough to show it off.   Certainly I think DS doesn’t want/need to see me naked at this point.  I’m not a prude, though – the pjs and nightgowns are smallish in the summer.

    Funny though – DH’s aunt and uncle (late 60s?) live in a clothing optional community, so we’ve had discussions about adult nudity for a few years  -  we were able to get the kids beyond the giggle-factor to a real discussion of how cool (and not sexual) it is.  When we visit this uncle/aunt, it’s a little nerve wracking to drive through (never know what you’ll see), but they are always clothed when we are there.  DH’s grandmother lived the end of her life with this son, and found tremendous humor that she, a conservative devout Christian, was living in a NUDIE village. LOL

  3. I’m going back 30 some years in my mind.

    I know DH stopped showering with the girls when they each hit around 2. They really didn’t go running around the house naked much as toddlers, but if I had to say, I’d guess whatever naked play they had pretty much ended when they were 4, maybe 5. When running around the house getting ready, I know they would see me naked, probably they were 7 or 8 when I became conscious about covering up.

    But I cannot begin to tell you how many times I was on the throne when little visitors appeared. For years, the lock on one of the bathroom doors was broken, so I had no privacy. But once they were potty trained, they got all pissed off if I or DH barged in on them. You would hear a shout of, “Mom, privacy!” Yet they thought nothing of barging in on me.

    I think it all depends on the comfort level of the children and parents.

  4. Well…

    DH and I grew up on totally different sides of this – my family was quite open and his was pretty “clothed” so now we always get in debates about the kids.  Mira has in the past year or so gotten more private with others – changing only with girls, etc.  But pretty ok at home.  And both kids still “RUN NAKED” and screaming… after many baths.  We’ve had to have more conversations with them about how you can touch yourself, but not others :-)  Going through that with Isaac now as apparently potty training brought out a crazy butt/poopy/penis vocabulary.  The other day he was grabbing people’s butts at daycare and yesterday given unwanted kisses so we’re working on boundaries…

    My favorite story about family nakedness though came when DH was on the iChat with my Mom trying to help her get their video camera set-up.  It was one that was separate from the computer and she had it on and he was trying to tell her how to mount it.  So at one point she flipped it in the other direction and there was my Dad, butt naked, on the other side of the room…  

  5. Looking forward to part 2

    Dh and I have been discussing since Lily is 4. She’s at a stage where she thinks my boobs are really funny. DH used to take showers with her and he stopped about 6 months ago unless it’s the bathing suit kind, which I understand.

    • This reminded me of an incident when

      DD1 was about 5 years old. I was pregnant with DD3 at the time and was drying off from a shower. DD1 saw me, looked me over head to toe and said, “Wow, Mommy, you really are black.” I asked her why she said that and she said she had never noticed before, then ran back to play with her doll house. Apparently she never took account of the difference until it just dawned on her one day.

      So you see that kids often don’t notice things that we as adults recognise all the time. Same with nudity. Most toddlers won’t take notice unless you make a big deal of it. But I do think it’s a good idea to encourage modesty in public. With all the perverts out there, the last thing you want is your DD or DS showing off her or his underwear to a stranger!

  6. Modesty has not kicked in

    I don’t like to change around my kids because my daughter will try to grab at me and ask “Nursy broken?”  I think I traumatized her for life by weaning her after 2 and doing it during the peak of sore breasts during this pregnancy by putting bandaids on my nipples and telling her they were broken.  This was four months ago and it’s still a daily topic of conversation for her.  Anyway, they think nothing of running around naked after swimming and the tub.  We just got out of the pool at Nana’s and I’m only supposed to be home briefly to grab their clothes ha, ha, ha.  Anyway, I can predict two naked boys lounging on Nana’s couches and a diapered little girl.

    We do draw the line at self exploration.  My 4 year old is fascinated with his penis. So we’ve had to talk a lot about how he’s allowed to touch it and doctors during exams can, and mommy and daddy while cleaning him in the tub.  We also have to remind him that it’s not polite to touch it in front of other people so we told him that in his bed at night was the best place.  Of course then he started doing it right after the tub on his bed while all of the kids were getting on their pajamas so that was changed to in his bed after the lights are off.  I hope we’re not warping him.

  7. There was never a limit

    on same sex nudity in our home. My Mom and my sisters and I have no shame about changing out of swimsuits for instance in front of each other, or trying on bras etc. My Mom took us all as teenagers to “all girls” weekends with our local bunch of hippie-pagan-alternative women’s groups and there was a lot of skinny dipping and nude sweat lodges and stuff. I do not believe I ever saw my Dad naked, but he did traumatize a guest in our house once by coming out to yell at us in the living room wearing only briefs. We were being noisy at 1 a.m. Anyhow, he didn’t know she was spending the night, it was dark in the living room and he thought she was one of us… anyhow. That was just how our family did it; YMMV of course.

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