At some point, you needed to get out of the shower in front of your young child — or get dressed or use the toilet — and you either decided to bare it all or cover up.
Was it the right decision — and is it still the right decision?
It’s a surprisingly controversial question that parents often don’t realize is even controversial until they talk to other parents who do things differently. Both sides have generally given it a lot of thought, theorizing about what’s psychologically helpful and harmful.
So, is it OK to be naked around your children?
When kids are very young, the consensus seems to be yes, since babies and toddlers are generally oblivious to nudity.
As they get older and especially when you’re talking about opposite-sex children, the answer isn’t quite so black and white.
“Nudity between parents and children is fine as long as both are fully comfortable,” says parent coach Dawn Huebner, PhD, author of the self-help book for kids “What to Do When You Worry Too Much.”
She adds that parents need to be on the lookout for any changes to that comfort level. “The goal with children is to foster delight and confidence in their bodies while gradually, over time, teaching norms related to privacy and consent,” she says.
If you’re trying to decide what’s appropriate for your family, you’re in the right place.
Here’s the naked truth about nudity — the pros, the cons, and some invaluable tips about when it might be time to cover up.
The pros and cons of parental nudity
There are a number of reasons you might want to be naked in front of your kids — and an equal number of reasons you might choose a modicum of modesty.
Here are some things to think about:
Pro: It’s convenient
When you have very young kids, occasionally being naked in front of them is often a given.
After all, if you have a baby or toddler, it’s next to impossible to go to the bathroom or take a shower alone… unless you enjoy endless screaming or worrying whether they’re going to hurt themselves (or destroy the house).
Then, as kids get older, boundaries aren’t always their forte. Says mom-of-two Brigette, “They keep barging into the bathroom, so why not?”
Con: You’re going to get awkward comments, questions, and stares
You might get questions about the “fur” down there or why certain body parts are “floppy.” It will likely take you off-guard and make you blush.
While some parents may choose to start covering up when that happens — especially when the child in question isn’t the same sex as you — you can also use this as a teaching moment and defuse the situation with a matter-of-fact, anatomically correct comment.
Children will generally listen, nod, and then move on.
Translation: It’s often a bigger deal to you than it is to them.
Just remember never to make them feel bad for asking a question, no matter how mortifying it may be.
Pro: You can promote body positivity and acceptance
Many moms say this is the main reason they go au naturel in front of their kids.
“Two babies later, my body is not what my daughter sees in magazines and billboards,” says Haley, a mom of two from New York City.
“I think it’s important that she grows up seeing what normal actually is. Equally important, I want her to grow up seeing her mom being OK with what normal is.”
Moms of boys can also want to pave the way for a new generation of men who see women as real people, not pinups on a pedestal.
Jill, a single mom of two from North Carolina, says, “I’m trying to teach [my boys] about the human body and how everyone is different. I’m also trying to teach them about knocking and privacy without body shame.”
And Huebner says parental nudity can certainly achieve that goal: “Casual nudity in front of small children helps them learn to be accepting of bodies — to see that bodies are functional, strong, and normal, regardless of shape or size. As long as nudity is separated from sexuality, there is no disadvantage to a parent being naked around a young child.”
Con: You just might feel uncomfortable
Put simply: Nudity isn’t for everyone.
It may be a result of how you were raised, your cultural background, or your personality. Other parents believe it’s important to teach kids about modesty from an early age.
“We have never been naked in front of our twins — we wear underwear,” says Adam, a dad from Long Island. “[We’re] teaching them that your body is nothing to be ashamed of but that your privacy should be respected.”
Pro: Body parts aren’t considered taboo
Even the most private of private parts serve a biological function and shouldn’t come with feelings of shame attached to them. This can particularly help as children hit puberty.
“I’ve been very open with my daughter, and it helped open the door for questions she might have about her developing body,” says Sue from Massachusetts.
“It led to some interesting discussions, but she also didn’t freak out when she started growing pubic hair because she knew it was normal.”
Con: Boundaries can get blurred
Things can get trickier when you’re dealing with children of the opposite sex — and many parents have a particular issue when it comes to dads and daughters.
Haley, for example, feels very differently about her husband’s nudity, and he’s never been fully undressed in front of their daughter.
“I think it’s important for her to learn ASAP that there is never a reason for an adult man to not have clothes on around her,” she says. “We just don’t feel like there can be any exceptions.”
While other families may instead opt to talk about body safety in different situations, there’s something to be said for that kind of clarity, says Susan Bartell, PsyD, a New York-based child and parenting psychologist.
“If you’re very clear what the boundaries are, then that child has no question whatsoever,” she explains, adding that kids don’t have the cognitive ability to understand nuance. “It is never OK to see an adult man naked — that is clear for that child.”
While Bartell believes it’s always OK for children to be naked around their same-sex parents, she says a different dynamic eventually develops with mothers/sons and fathers/daughters.
Pro: You can teach the difference between nudity and sexuality
There’s a difference — a big one.
And some parents believe that this distinction can help promote breastfeeding acceptance, as well as stop the hyper-sexualization of female bodies.
When it might be time to cover up
As with all things parenting-related, just when you think you have something sorted out, it changes.
Casual nudity may be fine and good when your little ones are little, but at some point, you might notice a difference in their comfort level — and yours.
“When parents begin to get uncomfortable and when they begin to actively question whether nudity is still OK, that’s a sign that it is no longer feeling OK and parental nudity should be phased out,” says Huebner.
“Similarly, somewhere between ages 4 and 8, most children begin to develop a sense of modesty about their own bodies and a corresponding discomfort with seeing their parents’ naked bodies.”
Here are some signs to watch out for…
- frequent, persistent questions about private parts when you’re naked
- laughter or insults about body parts
- trying to touch your private parts
- averting their eyes when they see you naked
- staring at your private parts
- requesting privacy for themselves
- telling you to cover up
Huebner says the issue is mainly about children starting to view genitals as explicitly sexual organs.
This is a normal part of development — you just need to be aware and respectful of what your child is trying to express.
“Respect the needs and sensibilities of your child,” Huebner advises. “You want them to see that they have a right to choose what feels OK and what doesn’t when it comes to their own bodies.”
Bartell has a different, more Freudian take on this: “Little boys aren’t sexual, but there is an Oedipal thing that happens at some point around 5-ish,” she says.
“It’s harder for it to resolve itself if they don’t have clear boundaries. If a child isn’t at the point where he’s registering your body, I think [nudity is] fine. The problem is, you don’t know when that’s going to shift.”
Both Huebner and Bartell agree that you need to start paying attention to this issue as early as age 5 but that it’s generally a good idea to set some boundaries by 10, at the latest.
Some parents, however, point out that this is an American sensibility and that things are different in Europe.
Regardless, it boils down to this: Listen to your kids, even when they’re not explicitly verbalizing something.
Jonathan, a New Jersey dad who never treated nudity as a big deal in his house so it became “natural,” followed this maxim — and his daughters’ lead.
“Both of my girls created boundaries long before I did, which I thought was healthy,” he says. “They decided when they needed to be more guarded with their own nudity and to avoid mine.”
Setting boundaries without stigma
The bottom line: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to parental nudity, but whatever you decide will involve some degree of boundary setting.
For example, there’s never a reason to poke and prod a parent’s privates. And at some point, it’s a good idea to have rules about not barging into a bedroom or bathroom.
On the flip side, you also need to respect your children when they no longer want to be naked in front of you.
While it can feel like an enormous shift, it’s simply an evolution. As you start to cover up, talk about privacy and set some limits. And don’t get weird about it.
“Even physically modest parents can destigmatize nudity by not rushing to cover up if their child inadvertently sees them,” says Huebner. “Instead, calmly say something along the lines of ‘I prefer to be alone when I am using the bathroom’ or ‘I’ll talk to you when I am dressed,’ without making a big deal out of the encounter.”
In the process, you can still promote body positivity and normalization.
Bartell suggests simply wearing underwear when in front of your kids, or even getting the message across by wearing a bathing suit without a big T-shirt over it: “Then your child can still see you’re embracing your body.”
And in the end, however you feel about nudity at home, that’s what we all want for our kids: a healthy way for them to think about themselves and others.
Dawn Yanek lives in New York with her husband and their two very sweet, slightly crazy kids. Before becoming a mom, she was a magazine editor who regularly appeared on TV to discuss celebrity news, fashion, relationships, and pop culture. These days, she writes about the very real, relatable, and practical sides of parenting at Momsanity. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.