Eight Things to Know About Nudity and Your Family
Getting naked with your kids.
Posted May 05, 2019
I believe that nudity should be treated as something natural, but unremarkable. Parents will be comfortable with different degrees of nakedness, depending on their own background and body image. Some families are comfortable showering or visiting saunas together. Others may be more comfortable only being naked around same-sex members. Still other parents may be reluctant to undress in front of a child, much less hold a conversation while nude. But remember that your attitudes towards nudity will shape your child’s future in a variety of ways.
Children have a natural curiosity about nudity. Being naked around your children—whether occasionally or regularly—can teach them what a “normal” adult body looks like. Modeling comfort with and respect for your body can become a basis for a healthy body image as your child grows and experiences the changes of adolescence.
Here are some tips for handling nudity in your family.
- Be explicit about the fact that there are different cultural rules around nudity. How nudity is handled varies across cultures and even across families. In some northern European communities, whole families will hot-tub together naked. In Germany, some public pools allow kids to swim naked until the age of 6; adults may frequently strip down on beaches or in parks. Elsewhere, however, we find numerous restrictions on when one can undress and in front of whom. Explaining such differences to children will help them develop an understanding of appropriate behavior in their own cultural context, as well as an ability to refrain from judgment when faced with different customs or beliefs.
- Be explicit about situational rules as they come into play. Being naked is normal in some situations and inappropriate in others, even within your own family. When children are young, they have not developed a sense of modesty based on cultural prescriptions and do not care who sees them naked. Eventually, though, they will need to manage the display of their body in expected ways, and parents can help children learn to do this without instilling a sense of shame. During the early years, they can have opportunities to see you naked. You may want to bathe together, as they will need help anyway. Request privacy when you want it, however, as when using the toilet. Children should also learn that nakedness will make people uncomfortable in some situations, as when visitors are present. Nakedness will be natural and expected in some places, such as in the bathroom or bedroom when changing, but out-of-place in the kitchen.
- Set patterns and expectations early. Opposite-sex nudity within the family is not unacceptable or traumatizing if it occurs early and within appropriate contexts, for example. For men or gay men raising daughters in the U.S., for example, nudity will not be shocking if it was treated as normal during the early years. The same goes for opposite-sex siblings (although care should be taken from very early on to teach siblings to uphold stricter boundaries when their friends are present in the home).
- It's OK to politely compare bodies and ask questions. Develop a sense of ease and comfort with your own body and with responding to questions. Your young children will look at your body, comparing it to their own or to your partner’s body. They may ask questions about breasts, penises, or pubic hair, and parents should respond factually (breasts provide milk for babies, hair provides cooling protection, because adults’ bodies are warmer, etc.). This process also teaches children when it is acceptable to look at other people’s bodies and what types of comments can be made.
- Use nudity as a teaching moment. Teach your child the correct names for each body part—penis, vagina, vulva, breasts, buttocks, etc. Learning the proper words will aid in their understanding of anatomy and cut down on confusion. It will also keep your child safer. If a child learns to differentiate between body parts, he or she will also be able to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touches. An accidental touch on the buttocks during play is very different from someone attempting to touch the vulva—but if this whole area is referred to as a “bum bum,” the child will have difficulty both interpreting and communicating about the behavior of others. With older children, nudity can also spark conversations about the changes to expect during adolescence.
- Keep eroticism out of the picture. Being naked, even with a partner present, does not mean that it is OK to be sexually expressive. Do not rub or touch a partner in sexually explicit ways, as this may confuse a young child.
- Follow the child's lead. By adolescence, self-consciousness about nudity usually develops regardless of how a child was raised. Some adolescents may want to accompany a parent into a steam room naked or go skinny-dipping with the family—others will not, even if they were OK with it in the past. Respect such decisions, and use cues to determine their comfort level even if nothing is stated directly. Some children may be uncomfortable with either their own nudity, or yours, in earlier years as well. Honoring a younger child’s feelings can be done in sex-positive ways: for example, abiding by requests to bathe separately at a certain age, but not to hide your nakedness in your own bedroom or bathroom.
- Cultivate lifelong attitudes. Comfort with one’s naked body translates into healthy behaviors later in life. Confidence, self-esteem, and body image are intertwined. Your child is watching how you respond to changes in your appearance or health, how you handle aging, and the ways that you are influenced by cultural ideals of beauty, masculinity, or femininity. Notice if you criticize yourself in front of your child. Even if you lack self-esteem, you do not necessarily need to pass that on. When appropriate, talk about the differences between the bodies you see in magazines or on television and the body that you have. Frame behaviors like dieting in terms of health rather than just appearance.
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