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Is Nudity Harmful to Our Children?

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Updated August 22, 2010

I was born in the US but my parents are Swedish and we had a family bed for many years, and no discomfort with nudity. I feel like my comfort with sex came from the way I was raised, never to feel ashamed or embarrassed about my body.

I’m now a mother myself (of a 6-year-old boy) and my partner was raised in a very different kind of house, where no one was ever naked in front of each other and doors were closed all the time. She’s never been as comfortable as I am with nudity and feels like now that our son is getting older, it isn’t appropriate for us to be naked in front of him anymore. I think this is ridiculous, but am wondering if there is an age when you’re supposed to stop being naked in front of your kids?

This is a great question, and I’m surprised how often it comes up when I’m talking with new parents about sexuality. Parental nudity can be a controversial subject to raise. There will always be people who incorrectly confuse nudity with sexuality and think that you are talking about sexual activity in a family. Obviously this is not what you’re asking about, and it isn’t what I’m addressing.

Maybe one of the reasons it remains controversial is that there is a huge divide between the theory and the research on this subject. You don’t have to go far to find “parenting experts” and theorists who believe that it is wrong to be naked in front of your kids, and that family nudity can lead to all sorts of problems. And, as you’ve described, people often feel strongly about this based on their own experiences.

On the other hand, research doesn’t support the idea that nudity leads to problems. While there hasn’t been very much research on this topic, and most of it relies on adults remembering their childhood experiences, overall the research doesn’t point to any grand negative impact of parental nudity in the home.

So how does a parent decide what to do, and when to change a family practice like being naked in the home?

There is no one way to deal with the situation, and I'd argue that what's most important is that you (and in this case your partner) think about your own values and beliefs, how you want to raise your children in terms of these values and beliefs linked to nudity, and then do it in a way that's consistent and understandable to your kids. Here are some things I'd be thinking about if I were trying to work through this question:

Be genuine.
Don’t force yourself to be more open or closed than you actually feel. If you’re raising children with a partner you’ll need to negotiate this, but you don’t have to feel or act in exactly the same way. Having different adult opinions isn't a problem per se. But if you betray your own feelings and force a behavior on yourself your children will subtly pick up on this, and the last thing you want to be teaching your kids is to mistrust their own judgment and boundaries.

Be consistent.
Don’t feel pressured into acting a certain way because you think it’s the “right” thing to do. Research indicates there aren’t any right and wrong answers here. If you’re comfortable with nudity that’s great. If you’re not, then establish where and when you want privacy. What’s important is that you are consistent in the way you model behavior for your kids.

Be able to explain your feelings and actions without judgment.
Regardless of what you do, if your children ask you about it, you should be able to respond without being judgmental. For example, if they ask why you always keep your door closed, or why they’re not allowed to come into the bathroom when you’re getting ready, you should be able to explain why without making them feel badly about their body and without being negative about your body. Saying “because it’s not right” is sending a vague and judgmental message about your body and by extension, about all bodies. Saying “I close the door because it’s private time for me” is a very different way of explaining a boundary without resorting to judgment. If your child asks why you walk around your bedroom naked when he knows that doesn’t happen in his friends' homes, you should be able to explain your beliefs without putting down how nudity is dealt with in other homes.

Use difference as a positive, not a negative.
If you’re raising your children with a partner and your partner doesn’t feel the way you do about nudity, don’t force a single solution. It’s okay for each of you to behave in a way that feels right as long as you can each explain your feelings. This approach offers your children the opportunity to see that nudity can be handled in many ways, and not one way is correct.

Pay attention and check in with your pre-teen and teenage children.
If your comfortable with nudity in the home, but aren’t sure if there is an age when it should stop, it is likely that your children will let you know when they want something to change. But they might not be comfortable saying something direct, so pay attention to your children and how they are reacting to your nudity. If they start spending more time in their room with their door closed, encourage them to know that’s okay, but also talk to them about what’s going on. Don’t force them to talk, but make sure they know you’re available and open to discussion. You may also want to offer that you can keep your door closed if that would make them more comfortable (or you may not want to offer this option, depending on your beliefs).

Take advantage of these opportunities to talk about bodies and sex.
Even though nudity isn’t the same thing as sex, in our culture the two are strongly equated. Talking about being naked opens up the opportunity to see if your children have any questions about sex. You never want to push your kids to talk to you about sex, but this may be one more chance to let them know that if they have questions, you’re open to answering them.

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