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Good Naked, Bad Naked, and Naked Parenting

“I can’t look anymore — I’ve seen too much!” This classic line from the iconic TV show Seinfeld, was Jerry’s response to observing his girlfriend struggle to open a jar of pickles in the nude. As is often the case, Jerry was tapping into a universally relatable situation. When Jerry shares his experience with his friend George, George gleefully responds, “It’s like you’re living in the Playboy Mansion!” Jerry then sets his naive friend straight: “Coughing? Naked? It’s a turnoff, man. When you cough there are 1,000s of unseen muscles that suddenly spring into action. It’s like watching that fat guy catch a cannonball in the stomach in slow motion. The thing you don’t realize is there’s good naked and bad naked.”

I’ve never been comfortable with my own nudity, let alone that of others. I played high school football, and never showered with the team after practice. My shyness and discomfort has persisted even in the context of romantic relationships. I’m self-conscious throughout intercourse, and I immediately clothe myself once the act is complete, even pre-spooning. I’ve become somewhat more relaxed around my wife, but even that’s limited to fleeting moments. My wife, on the other hand, is perpetually in a state of nudity or partial nudity. This past year we gave birth to twin girls, now six-months old. As our baby girls are slowly becoming more aware of themselves and the world around them, we started thinking about how our nudity might impact their psychological development.

Over the holidays, we started asking some of our more seasoned peers how they approach parental nudity. The Stewart family can be easily classified at the liberal end of the spectrum. Prior to having kids they were practically nudists, but only in the privacy of their home. They now have three children, ages one, three, and five. At some point, they transitioned from nudity as a lifestyle to a combination of lifestyle and indoctrination. Tyson is the patriarch of the Stewart family. According to Tyson, they realized it was time to start educating their first daughter when she turned three, at which point her eyeballs lined up with their crotches. They started getting a lot of questions at that level, particularly when she noticed that mom and dad had different private parts. At this point, they decided to actively educate their children and open a dialogue. Tyson and his wife are both highly educated, with his wife possessing a Ph.D in clinical psychology, and experience working with children. As their daughter continued asking questions, they adopted a particular language system. They believed that slang would not be useful, and medical terms were too complicated. Ultimately, they decided to go with vagina, penis, and anus (tushy is also acceptable). Their daughter now understands that pee comes out of the penis and the vagina, and the anus is where poop comes out.

The Stewarts’ long-term goal is to make sure their children are comfortable being naked and develop a positive self-image. They also don’t want the mere sight of a naked person to freak them out or make them feel uncomfortable. They want them to understand what they’re seeing when they see it and act appropriately (for their age). If their children happen to see a naked man or woman, they won’t automatically point, laugh, or shriek in horror. Tyson still encourages the children to keep asking questions, but the questions their children may have will be more sophisticated — “Daddy, why do you have black hair on your private parts and that man has red hair on his?”

Of all the families I interviewed, the Stewarts are sort of an anomaly. Even among those families who practice social nudity, most are not as deliberate with their indoctrination. Most parents do not necessarily intend to be naked in front of their children, but make no concerted effort to shield their children from nudity. I spoke with Corey, a married father of two boys – aged four and five. Corey and his wife thought they would eventually alter their habits and actively limit their boys’ exposure to nudity, but for the most part “everybody is just naked as hell all the time.” Compared to the other demands and stresses of raising boys, such as keeping them alive, nudity just hasn’t seemed like a big deal. Corey also acknowledged that having two boys is a big factor. “They’ll be seeing strangers wieners in gym class for years so who cares if I hang Dad Dick around ‘em? Not me, that’s who.”

I think most people would agree that it’s harmless for parents to be naked around their babies, but at a certain point it becomes weird or even unacceptable (at least in Western culture). For example, there’s clearly nothing wrong with a father bathing with his one-year-old girl, but the thought of a father showering with his 14-year-old daughter is repulsive. Unfortunately, there’s no bright line rule as to when it becomes unacceptable — there’s a lot of gray area. A lot of parents seem to draw the line when their child starts forming long-term memories. Rob and his wife have a 9-month old girl. They generally believe that nudity is fine and want to raise their daughter with a positive relationship to her body and those of others. Rob especially will be more conscious of his own nudity because they have a daughter. They plan on reassessing their practices when their daughter reaches an age where she might remember — even then, it’s more out of concern for something being misconstrued by CPS. Rob went on to elaborate, “As our culture interprets nudity as hyper sexual, parental nudity could be misconstrued if a toddler-aged daughter happens to blurt out at pre-school that her parents walk around naked.”

Like Rob, nearly every parent I interviewed for this article expressed concern about inadvertently coming under the radar of CPS. For this reason, a lot of parents alter their habits when their children enter pre-school. Jeffrey lives with his wife and three-year-old daughter. They’re not as free-spirited as the Stewarts, but they don’t actively avoid casual nudity. Their daughter refers to the penis as a “hot dog and peanuts.” She knows the correct name but she thinks hotdog and peanuts is funny. Jeffrey’s wife usually showers with their daughter, but Jeffrey steps up to the plate when his wife is otherwise occupied. During a recent shower, Jeffrey’s daughter slipped and inadvertently grabbed his penis to avoid the fall. Thankful that their daughter was unscathed, Jeffrey and his wife were amused by the incident, although Jeffrey acknowledged that his involuntary assist was painful. Their daughter will be entering pre-school next year — one could imagine a surprise visit from CPS if their daughter casually mentions touching “daddy’s hotdog” in conversation with her teacher.

Concerns about CPS aside, most mothers are comfortable around daughters and fathers around sons, but all parents seem to agree that the real hot-button issue surrounding parental nudity is when the genders are mixed, particularly the relationship between fathers and daughters. Brian and Anna have daughters aged five and seven. Anna doesn’t actively avoid the girls when she’s naked, but they both like hanging out with mommy when she’s getting dressed or in the bathroom. Her younger daughter doesn’t seem bothered at all, but the seven-year-old frequently says things like “ooh gross put your clothes on Mommy I can see your boobies.” Anna kindly reminds her that it’s mom’s bathroom and that she has her own bathroom to go use if she doesn’t want to see mommy naked. Brian, on the other hand, became more guarded about his nudity around the time their first daughter turned five. Anna and Brian weren’t sure if she had noticed dad’s penis until Anna discovered a Barbie doll with a flesh-colored Lego stuffed in Barbie’s pants. While the daughter was embarrassed, she rationally explained that she wanted Barbie to pee standing up just like daddy.

It’ll be years before we know how the Stewarts, Johnsons, and all of these children turn out, but the academic research suggests a positive outlook. In the case of exposure to parental nudity, the evidence points to generally neutral or perhaps even positive correlates. The causal relationship between family social nudity and high body self-image is clearly supported by the available research. No empirical evidence links such experiences with subsequent psychological harm.

In addition to looking into empirical evidence, I spoke with a number of adults who were raised under various degrees of nudity from casual to full on nudist. Erin is 27 years old. Although her parents weren’t nudists, it was common to see her mother naked in the home and vice versa. Even as adults, she and her mom will see each other naked while sharing a hotel room, fitting rooms, or any time they’re chatting while getting dressed together. She’s never found it weird, and if anything she believes her experience made her more comfortable with her body because nobody ever acted like it was a big deal to be naked. She adds — “I don’t know how anyone blow-dries their hair with full clothes on. I’d be a sweaty mess.”

I also spoke with Jamie who spent her formative years at a nudist camp with her family. The Treehouse Sun Ranch was started by a retired stuntman and his wife, Bill and Fran Flesher. I’m sure Bill would agree with Seinfeld’s “good vs bad naked,” as Bill would always say “There’s nothing sexy in a nudist camp.” Treehouse was a family resort, and a big part of growing up in a nudist family is learning about “boundaries” and “consent”. Otherwise, the weekends were filled with swimming, rec sports, concerts, festivals, chili cook-offs, weddings, and other events typical of more traditional resorts except that everything was done in the nude.

Although Jamie fondly recalls her youth and believes it had a positive influence on her own self-image, she has not continued the nudist lifestyle. She’s now married and has a two-year-old girl. Although Jamie’s not a practicing nudist, she has no qualms about being nude around her infant daughter. Yet, she’s still more reserved than one would assume considering her nudist upbringing. She showers with her daughter but she doesn’t join her in the bathtub. Again, despite her upbringing, even Jamie’s anxious about being reported to CPS. Her husband takes it a step further and consciously avoids exposing his daughter to any nudity — which led to a humorous conversation between Jamie and her daughter:

“Baby gina, mommy gina, daddy gina.”

“No sweetie, daddy doesn’t have a gina.”

“Daddy no gina?”

Their daughter was distraught for days as she continued repeating “Baby Gina, mommy gina, daddy no gina.” She eventually worked through the stages of grief, and ultimately felt sorry for dad because he was excluded from team gina.

While interviewing parents for this article, I was impressed by their honesty and candor; but everyone would get uncomfortable when I would bring up what I saw as the elephant in the room: erections. While mothers and fathers both have private parts, only fathers have visible sex signals — no one wants to expose their child to an erect penis. The Stewarts had no problem teaching their daughter the penis’ role in the excretory system, but they’re definitely not ready to explain its sexual function. If a child were to see an erect penis, the parents would be compelled to have “that” conversation. I also think there’s a more sinister reason to avoid erect penis sightings: seeing an erect penis is like being able to read someone’s thoughts. Philosophers and science fiction writers universally agree that mind reading would have disastrous consequences for the human race. Considering that we cannot control our thoughts and that we often keep our true feelings to ourselves, human interaction as we know it would cease. People would avoid face to face contact, fearing that friendships would meet their demise, and their darkest thoughts could land them in jail. Thankfully, most of us can’t read minds, but an erect penis speaks for itself. I followed up with Jamie, the former nudist, assuming that she had seen her share of erect penises at the Sun Ranch. “Never!”, she replied. She went on to say that an erect penis would’ve been cause for immediate expulsion from the camp.

Talking to other parents about this topic was an educational experience, but I’m still not sure how my wife and I will handle nudity around our twin girls. Fortunately, they’re only six months old so we have a few years to work out the details. We certainly don’t plan on being nudists, but we also don’t plan on making a concerted effort to completely avoid exposure. Considering the madness of raising twins, and the unpredictable nature of young children, I’m sure they will be exposed to some parental nudity. Raising children is exhausting and stressful enough without piling on irrational fears. The academic research correlates with a positive self-image for children exposed to parental nudity. It’s also not a crime to be naked in the privacy of your home, whether or not you have children. Yet, you have to be aware of cultural norms. Parents in the Netherlands don’t worry about getting in trouble if their child casually mentions “dad dick” in school. In America, nudity has been robbed of its natural orientation and relegated to the realms of sex and pornography. An overly moralistic school teacher may jump to conclusions and assume that parental nudity is a form of grooming. So, whether you’re flying by the seat of your pants like Corey’s family, or indoctrinating your children in the context of a nudist lifestyle like the Stewarts, you should consider having a frank discussion with your child’s school and/or day care provider. It’s always better to initiate the conversation than to be on the receiving end of a surprise visit from CPS.

Final thought: Even if you’re raising your children as tree-hugging nudist hippies, there tends to be a limited shelf-life to parental nudity. Before you know it, your delightful toddlers will be slamming bedroom doors with audible sounds of teen angst, at which point the sight of naked parents will most likely provoke a gag reflex. Remember, there’s good naked and bad naked. Playing in the bathtub with your three-year old is clearly good naked, but nude ping-pong with your awkward teenager will end abruptly with him throwing his paddle in disgust and stomping out as he shouts “I can’t look anymore — I’ve seen too much!”

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