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).