Eeeek! Naked kids!

When is it OK to let your child run around without clothes? The N.Y. Times asks. We discuss

By Broadsheet Staff

Published July 16, 2009 8:17PM (EDT)

If you happened to log on to the New York Times Web site this morning, you were treated to the site of a toddler's round, bare bum smack dab on the top of the home page. How's that for cheeky? The accompanying story tackles a subject that rears (sorry) its head in these hot, sticky summer months: When is it OK for a child to go naked? How much nakedness is too much? And if it bothers us, then why?

Julia Scelfo's fun piece drops in on all sorts of families, from those who let their little ones scamper about, happily starkers, to those who think all that boho freedom is a little, um, unsettling. We took it to our Broadsheet writers to discuss: 

Mary Elizabeth Williams: The fact that the Times titled the story "When Do They Need a Fig Leaf?" is all the tipoff you need about the paper of record's point of view on modesty.

My firstborn daughter, naturally shy, is most comfortable in a parka. Her younger sister, age 5, lives every day like it's Burning Man. What I want for both of them is to grow up loving themselves and their bodies.

While moralizing finger waggers go on about "protecting" kids by bundling them up, I've always held that the best way to protect them is by respecting them, letting them know they're loved and beautiful, clad and unclad. The window of time in one's life in which you can run around with neither pants nor compunction is all too brief. In the long run, I think shame does a hell of a lot more harm to children than their own skin ever could.

Amy Benfer: All of my cousins, my play group friends and I spent the '70s running around naked in our yards pretty much whenever we liked. It was the '70s! It was Northern California! The parents had hot tubs! When I was small, my mom even had a specific time of day officially designated as "Bare Bottom Time" when she and I both would run around the house naked (taking the obvious precautions to shelter the neighbors from the more shocking site of a naked adult woman). My cousins and friends and I raised our own kids the same way.

I suppose there were a few (completely unstated) rules. We probably were more likely to run around naked in our own houses and yards, though naked babies at the beach are completely familiar. We must have gradually done less of it. I would guess somewhere between 5 and 6, I probably would have been less comfortable around naked boys my own age. And I remember being totally humiliated at age 10 when my bathing suit top fell down in the middle of swim class after a particularly emphatic high dive. But us girls were still skinny-dipping in our friends' (sheltered) backyard pool at 11 -- and I have pictures to prove it.

I absolutely agree with the therapist who says that people who have overly strong reactions to naked children are expressing their own hang-ups. But I would take it even further and say that freaking out over naked kids is the definition of inappropriately sexualizing children, not the other way around. Telling a very young child to be ashamed of their body, to me, implies even more so that the adult is looking at the kid in a creepy way. Kids grow out of it on their own. Let them.

Judy Berman: Yeah, it's sad that hysteria about pedophiles -- and a general panic about childhood sexuality -- is preventing kids from indulging in the kind of good, clean fun that would likely also help them to accept their bodies as they grow up. Parents who fixate on modesty are setting their children up for a future of shame and self-consciousness. Could you believe the mom who thought nudity would be fine for her little boy, if only it didn't set a poor example for her little girl?

At the same time, I do think kids need to grow up with the understanding that they will have to wear clothes in most social situations, especially once they start school. There's a delicate balance between learning to love your own body (and others') and streaking through second grade.

Katharine Mieszkowski: I don't find it very surprising that some parents and grandparents are more comfortable than others with children's nudity. I don't have any proof, but I have my suspicions that it was ever thus.

Still, reading this article, I couldn't help but think: If this is your idea of a problem, your family must be very fortunate. Count your blessings!

Broadsheet Staff

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