Dear Doctor Donna,
I’m hoping to get your thoughts on something that has been bothering me. Last month, I stayed with my son and his family while my house was fumigated. I live close and see them all the time, but this was the first time I overnighted. My son has two boys, Logan, 5, and Liam, 2, and when bath time came the whole family stripped down and got in the tub together. And it was a regular-sized tub, not one of those spa types you see in some newer houses.
I know that raising children has changed since I was a mom. At the boys’ age, my kids had a bedtime and a bed of their own to go to, but my son’s wife believes in no bedtime and a “family bed.” I’m a little dubious, but I swear Doctor Donna I have never said a single word against it. But a “family bathtub” is going too far. Or is it?
I honestly don’t know what to think. Sometimes I suspect the problem is with me—I need to be more relaxed and open-minded. Logan and Liam are happy and healthy, I’m sure of that, so my son and his wife must be doing a great job. At other times, I worry about the boys, especially Logan. Should a five-year-old really squeeze into a tub with his naked parents every night? Please tell me what you think.
Torn in Tacoma
You would be surprised at how often clients ask me this question or one like it. With so many different parenting philosophies competing for attention these days, it can be hard to know what’s really best for the children in our lives. Some people believe that bathing with children helps them regard their own bodies in a positive light, while others believe that any exposure to adult nudity causes children social and psychological harm.
As is so often the case, the truth lies between these extremes. Parents may safely (and joyfully) bathe with their children, but only up to a point—a point determined by the child. Logan is at an age when children begin expressing a desire for privacy. He may close the bathroom door when using the toilet, for example, or duck into a closet to change for bed. When he does, two things should happen. First, he should get the privacy he asks for. Second, his parents should cover up.
When children make gestures of modesty, they are engaged in healthy boundary-drawing. They are telling us about activities or parts of their bodies that they want to keep a bit more screened from view. But they are also telling us about activities and body parts that they need to be screened from. If parents ignore these tentative signals, they may indeed cause psychological harm, not because the sight of parental genitalia is instantly traumatic, but because the child’s feelings and developmental needs are not being respected.
The truth is that parental genitalia can be unnerving to young children, who may be frightened by them or feel inferior for not having a similar set. Perhaps more importantly, they normalize exposure to adult genitalia, which could make children more vulnerable to predators. Children who are used to seeing their parents naked may not register a stranger’s exposed penis as a threat—with potentially devastating consequences.
I recommend that you find an opportunity for a calm, rational talk with your son. Start with the positive impression you conveyed a moment ago: that Logan and Liam are happy and healthy because of his and his wife’s care. Then express your concern. Explain what it means when a child begins “asking” for privacy—and, if you can recall how your son “asked” when he was a boy, you could share a story to make the point more vividly. Then drop the topic.
Dropping the topic is important for two reasons. First, you must give your son a chance to digest the information, to reflect on Logan’s behavior, and to talk with his wife. Second, if you drop the topic and keep it dropped, you model the respect for boundaries that you want your son to show your grandsons. So this may be one conversation in which stopping it is just as important as starting it.
Thank you for writing!