Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our four-year-old has developed a habit of streaking through the house before bath time. The one-year-old has been trying to join in, now that he can walk, but he’s much easier to catch.
My husband and I are pretty casual about the children’s preference to go without clothing whenever they wish, since for the most part, they are spending the pandemic at home. My question is, how do we let them feel good about their bodies but prepare them (eventually!) for modesty in public?
Not A Nudist
Nudity within the family is a very personal choice with boundaries usually set according to the parents’ comfort while the children are young. There are cultural norms that can change over time, so depending on where and when you were children, your parents were children, and your grandparents were children, there could easily be disagreement between generations or even two parenting partners.
My Body is Wonderful
Contemporary child psychology believes that a young child should have a positive attitude about every inch of his body. You can instill a positive attitude as you name body parts in songs and games starting with a tiny baby. “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” is sung as you gently move his hands for the actions. When you diaper, bathe, and dress a baby you are also imparting positive vibes as you talk to him about what you are doing. From rolling over, to crawling, to stair climbing, to running naked through the house, a child is gaining pride in what he can do with his wonderful body. This is all good.
Children slightly older than yours start to become aware of standards for body shapes and sizes set by the media. This can lead to a negative self-image if too much emphasis is given to having a “perfect” body. Every body is wonderful. Although the body positivity movement is gaining acceptance with clothing designers and models acknowledging a fuller range of normal sizes, “fat shaming” and eating disorders affect children even in elementary school. Genetics play a role in height and weight, however behavior can sabotage a child’s growing body. Give your child the foundation of taking good care of his body with the healthy habits of nutritious eating and physical exercise. Naked time (at home!) fuels prideful ownership of the wonderful body he has.
My Body Belongs to Me
The concept of a “self” usually sets in around the time a toddler is steady on his feet. Now he can run away from you, or at least try, which helps him define his body as that which is physically within his control – and not anyone else’s. This is a great age to reinforce his ownership of his body through songs and games, but also through permission. Of course you are still cleaning and dressing his body, however your attitude can include using a respectful approach as you gradually include him in these responsibilities. Toilet mastery is an excellent example. It is important to use proper names of body parts and functions as you guide him toward independence in the bathroom.
Choices of clothing, or the choice to not wear any, should be given to children within reason. One reason for clothing is the weather. But if your home has a working HVAC system, it’s probably comfortable regardless of the outside temperature. Another reason for clothing is appropriateness for the occasion. This also makes more sense outside of your home.
Toddlers and preschoolers, and even children up to about age ten, are content to make believe with clothing changes – or nudity – as an imaginary occasion demands. With an old derby and a necktie he can pretend to be the pastor from church. With a towel around his waist and a pair of your slippers on his feet – and a wooden ruler for a spatula – he pretends to be you flipping pancakes for the family’s breakfast. And a naked body is appropriate for the seal doing tricks for fish in the bathtub.
Parents, and Society, Set the Standards
Many of the things we do as parents help our children to fit in with society’s standards. There are parts of the body, and bodily functions, that are considered to be private. When you once again venture out with your children, prevailing privacy standards will direct you to public restrooms, or your best alternatives, for diapering and toileting. Your children couldn’t care less because they aren’t old enough to imagine, nor worry about, how someone else views their actions.
By around age six, a child will object to changing in or out of a bathing suit under the makeshift shield of a beach towel. He’ll insist on four walls or at least the protection of a bathroom stall or the inside of the car. When you respect his wishes you are helping him honor his growing awareness of the parts of his body that are private.
Balance your children’s need to take care of and to be comfortable in their bodies with society’s guidelines of public comfort. Explain the rules simply and consistently. We cover up the private parts of our bodies outside of our home. At some point – usually between ages six to ten, your children will be embarrassed to be seen naked by their parents. This is a good time to emphasize their control over other people’s access to their bodies. Give the example of a medical exam or emergency as a time when a parent or medical professional would want to have their consent and cooperation. But a child has the right to refuse a kiss or a hug or any uncomfortable contact. That’s the simple rule now and going forward.
The pandemic taught us the societal rule of wearing masks when around people with whom we don’t live. Even children as young as three or four-years-old are used to it by now. Bare faces and bare bodies are perfectly okay at home.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Be sure to check out the upcoming virtual parenting workshops taking place at the Museum in January and take advantage of the easy online registration.
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