NYT: When is it OK for kids to run around naked?
Alex Nicola, who will be 5 in August, enjoys being naked as frequently as possible at home.
"In the morning he gets up and takes his pajamas off, and rather than get dressed right away, he walks around naked," said Dawn Nicola, Alex's mother, a stay-at-home parent in Castle Rock, Colo.
After school, he likes to take off his pants, recline on his stuffed animal chair and watch an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants while snacking on cheese-flavored crackers.
"I call him my little naked boy," Mrs. Nicola, 44, said affectionately.
Alex's desire to be unclothed is not shared by his twin brother, Andrew, or by his 6-year-old sister, Gabrielle. "It's a stage he's going through, and he'll grow out of it," said John Nicola, 39, Alex's father, a sales executive at First Data Corporation.
Usually Alex's state of undress is a non-issue. Several weeks ago, however, it caused something of a stir when a classmate of Gabrielle's and her mother came over for a play date. Alex asked his sister and her friend to paint his fingernails and then suggested a fleshier canvas.
"Apparently, he decided to take off his clothes and was like, 'Put nail polish on me! Put nail polish on my bottom!' " Mrs. Nicola said.
The girls obliged, and after creating a shapely pink masterpiece, ran down to the kitchen to confess to their mothers. Mrs. Nicola was taken aback, but after admonishing the girls and examining her son's backside, she found the situation mildly amusing.
The classmate's mother, however, was horrified. "The mom was sort of appalled that Alex got naked in front of her daughter," Mrs. Nicola said. "She expressed concern that we hadn't talked enough about private parts. She said, 'In our family, we always talk about how certain parts of the body are not for anyone else to touch.' "
For many parents, allowing a child to run around naked at home is perfectly natural, an expression of physical freedom that represents the essence of childhood, especially in the summer. But for others, unclad bodies are an affront to civility, a source of discomfort and a potentially dangerous attraction for pedophiles. These clashing sensibilities can create conflict, even when the nudity in question takes place at home.
Often, the differences in viewpoint are generational. Rachel Sarah, 36, a writer and mother in East Bay, Calif., said that until her 9-year-old daughter, Mae, turned 7, she liked to wear only a T-shirt in the summer, a preference that Ms. Sarah found healthy, but that Mae's grandparents could not accept. "My mom and stepfather were very insistent on her having clothes on for everything," Ms. Sarah said.
Although most days Mae ran half-dressed through the sprinkler or played with friends under a hose, she had to accept different rules when her grandparents were around. "Their view, I would say, is that little girls need to have their clothes on unless they're taking a bath," Ms. Sarah said.
Aly Mandel, 41, a school psychologist and mother of five in Highland Park, N.J., said she, too, felt ire from extended family members for allowing her daughter Ava, now 6, to roam naked in and around the house when she was younger.
"My mother, it used to drive her crazy how naked Ava was," Ms. Mandel said, explaining that the girl abhorred clothes. "My mother-in-law also, they both felt it crossed the line of what was appropriate. My mother-in-law would come in and automatically say, 'Ava, put on your clothes. Put on your underwear.' "
Gloria Schwartz, Ms. Mandel's mother-in-law, says she didn't have a problem with the nudity when Ava and her twin sister, Emily, were very young. But "when they got to be 3 years old, it bothered me," said Ms. Schwartz, 65, a real estate agent. "I would pull up to the house and the girls were running around naked. It felt inappropriate for them to be standing on the street in front of their house naked."
Ms. Schwartz said she has since become more comfortable with her grandchildren's nudity, something that now comes up with Ms. Mandel's youngest set of twins, who are 2.
Sometimes it's the grandparents who are more permissive. Robert Kohlbrenner thought nothing of it last summer when his grandchildren, two boys, ages 4 and 10, and a girl, 6, asked if they could skinny-dip by the dock on a very hot day at his home on Oneida Lake in upstate New York.
"I think it's fun for them," said Dr. Kohlbrenner, 58, a psychologist in private practice, who found out later that his son did not approve. "If you can't do it when you're a kid, when can you do it, you know?"
Dr. Kohlbrenner's son, Justin, 30, said he and his wife felt that their oldest son was too old to be naked. "He was getting a little too big to be doing it, you know, especially in front of his brother and sister," he said.
'Clothes can be uncomfortable'
Experts like Sharon Lamb, a professor of mental health at the graduate college of education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said it's all but inevitable that children will want to spend time wearing only their birthday suits, especially in certain situations. "Clothes can be uncomfortable," said Dr. Lamb, a co-author of the forthcoming book "Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes." "For some kids, getting dressed gets associated with something they don't want to do, like eating their veggies."
Around the age of 3 or 4, children begin to differentiate between what's private and what's public, experts say, and they usually begin to feel modesty soon after. But parents' attitudes play the largest role in determining whether children are comfortable being naked at home, said Lawrence Balter, a psychologist at New York University and the editor of "Parenthood in America," an encyclopedia.
"If someone has what appears to be an overly strong reaction to seeing young children running around naked, it tells us about their own hang-ups, their own inner conflicts," Dr. Balter said.
Cultural norms are another factor. Katarzyna Psujek, 38, an administrator at Tiffany & Company and a mother of two sons who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said her son Sebastian, who turned 3 in May, often frolics at home naked and spent nearly an entire weekend naked last September at a rented house in upstate New York where the family celebrated a friend's wedding with about 30 other overnight guests.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people who were there were Polish," said Ms. Psujek, whose last name is pronounced SUE-yek. "I remember thinking, if there were more people around, and if they were Americans, would they accept him running naked as he was?"
In the United States, she continued: "I just don't think it's acceptable in popular culture. Americans have a sense that the body is very private. You don't talk about these things openly. Nudity is hush-hush."
Some discomfort with nude children comes from the inevitable: they tend to answer nature's call whenever and wherever it beckons.
Upon picking up her son, Hayden, from his friend's house in Burlingame, Calif., last year, Rachael Dominguez, an optician, said she was stunned when the friend's mom told her that Hayden, who turns 6 next month, was not welcome back because he had undressed and urinated in the yard. "She said, 'I just think it's a bad example for my children and I think he shouldn't come over and do that anymore,' " said Ms. Dominguez, 42.
Another factor that can play a role in attitudes toward naked children is the child's gender. Phyllis Halper, a fourth-grade teacher on Long Island, will not permit her 3-year-old son, Gavin, to get completely undressed at home, not because she thinks it's inappropriate, but because she is concerned that it might influence the behavior of her daughter, Jordyn, 5. "I expect her, especially as a girl, to be more modest," Ms. Halper said.
Ms. Halper, 35, has taught 9- and 10-year-olds for a decade, and she said she sees firsthand how young girls are learning about sexuality at younger and younger ages, and finds it unhealthy.
Masturbation is another landmine. "Kids like to touch themselves, they do," said Phyllis A. Katz, a psychologist and the former director of the Institute for Research on Social Problems in Boulder, Colo. "Parents sometimes feel uncomfortable about that, and maybe negative feelings about masturbation are mixed up with nudity."
The sexual component of nudity — and a fear of pedophiles — is what makes some adults object entirely to letting children be naked. Jenny Louie said her husband is so uncomfortable when their 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is naked that, even if she is alone in her bedroom, in Los Angeles, he will immediately close her shutters.
"He's afraid of weird people looking in," said Ms. Louie, 35, a marketing consultant for Disney.
Her husband, John Louie, 38, a vice president at the Mattel toy company, said that he is "definitely protective" of his daughter, but that modesty plays a larger role.
At a party at a friend's home recently, Mr. Louie bristled when the hosts let their 4-year-old daughter splash naked in a children's pool, and his wife allowed Rebecca to join in. "I don't want to see her naked and, frankly, I don't want to see other kids running around naked either," Mr. Louie said. "Half the other couples there were fine with that, but I'm more demure."
Another group that doesn't always appreciate unclad bodies: childless adults. Kevin Allen, 45, who used to work as a personal shopper, still recalls with horror the afternoon more than a decade ago when he was at a client's house, and the woman's two young granddaughters came into the room and began changing outfits.
"I was extremely uncomfortable," said Mr. Allen, who estimates the girls were 5 and 6. "I know the grandmother well, but I didn't know the children."
When asked to reflect on the source of his discomfort, Mr. Allen, who is gay, said he feared the situation could all too easily be misinterpreted. "Being gay, you're already thought of as a pervert by some people," he said. "If you look the wrong way at them or something like that, people are going to think you're having some kind of lascivious thought. So it's kind of not appropriate even in your own house. When other people are around, you should have modesty."
Psychologists seem to agree that parents are wise to teach their children that different situations call for different behaviors, and that taking guests' feelings into account is a thoughtful thing to do.
"I think there are societal realms of appropriate behavior," Dr. Katz said. "If a kid was having a birthday party and was 7 or 8 and suddenly decided to take off all his clothes or something like that, that would not be seen as an appropriate thing to do. Not because of the nudity per se, but because it's so unexpected."
This article, "When Do They Need a Fig Leaf? first appeared in The New York Times.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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