At what age is it inappropriate to bathe with your kids? Recently I put this question to a group of parents. One dad answered, “When it’s not certain whose pube has floated to the top.” A mom chimed in, “When everyone in the tub is reading a copy of The New Yorker.” We laughed.
But a conversation about boundaries and private parts didn’t end there. One dad wondered what one should do when your two year-old son says, “Daddy, I love your penis so much, I want to kiss it!” It seemed we’d all been there: Parents in bathrooms, showers, tubs with our babies and toddlers answering questions and setting boundaries while trying not to impose shame and anxiety onto the situation.
When I posed the question to Facebook there were a range of responses, most of them began or ended with the caveat, “It’s a personal choice.”
There were a number of body-positive stories about moms, grandmothers and daughters showering together.
” I showered w/ my grandmother even as an older child. Probably until about 2nd grade? I loved it. I think it might depend on the child, though, and for how long they seem to want to continue and not feel weird about it. It’d probably be different for every kid.”
“Rylie (3yo) showers with me and her G and her Grammy regularly, more often than not, and she is not weirded out by papa or Grampa bathing her. I wasn’t necessarily raised a nudist but I was never raised to hide my body around female relatives and I have no intentions of making Rylie self-conscience about hers either. She will decide when she is too old to shower with us but, she is already a lot like her mama in that, she runs around the whole house naked with no qualms and that probably won’t ever change lol.”
“My daughter still showers with me (because she wants to) and she’s 6. I don’t consider it an issue. She’s a girl. I’m a girl. I think she’ll stop on her own when she hits that age where she gets self-conscious, which will probably be any minute now.”
Several commented that they have no qualms with shower/bathing-related nudity throughout childhood, regardless of gender:
“We took vacations to a lot of natural hot springs and baths (Thermopolis, Death Valley, Japan) where public bathing was normal and I got used to seeing all body types.”
“There has been absolutely no dialog about the nudity aspect because it hasn’t even crossed our minds I suppose. Skin is skin. Genitalia is genitalia. Limbs are limbs, etc. Our son has known the anatomically correct terms since he was knee high to a grasshopper. Literally pronouncing these words at one year of age.”
But then there are those who have sterner feelings.
“Until they start pointing or touching and asking questions,” said one respondent.
Another supported that view: “My opinion is until the start asking questions like “What’s that”?!!?! Lol”
Of all the comments these were the only ones that bugged me, and I think I know why. Of course, this is all about having choices, and personal or cultural beliefs play a part, but it was something about the desire to suppress or avoid any questions that came across as narrow-minded. It is normal for kids to be curious about body parts and those body parts have names. The American Academy of Pediatrics website offers this advice:
“18 months to 3 years of age. Your child will begin to learn about his own body. It is important to teach your child the proper names for body parts. Making up names for body parts may give the idea that there is something bad about the proper name.”
It’s really important for a child to learn the names of things, whether it’s colors, or kinds of animals or their anatomy. Kids and parents bathing or being naked around each other are opportunities. In fact, there are times when it’s weird that you are still wearing clothes, especially in the bath. These kids have no idea the conflicted, anxious world that awaits them, why not get them off to a good start by just saying, “that’s a penis.” So many other things will be vague and fraught later, at least give them the tools to talk about things.
I’m obviously a child of the progressive ’70s. My 1975 edition of The Mother’s Almanac instructs:
“He should know you think bodies are beautiful, which he will if he sees you and your husband walk around naked occasionally and if he can touch your bodies without your looking embarrassed. If you accept your child’s natural curiosity about sex now he won’t feel the shame it so often brings later.”
For most of us the answer about when you stop bathing with your kids actually has less to do with nudity and more to do with practical matters. We took baths with babies for years and only stopped when the tub got too small. A two year-old thrashing around in a bathtub is not exactly a “Calgon take me away” moment for the parent. Also, part of showering is learning how to wash up on your own. An open-minded friend with an 11 year-old boy told me:
“The obvious reason I wouldn’t shower w A is that he is big enough that in a regular shower we would be too close to feel comfortable and, more importantly — he doesn’t need help in the shower! So I guess to me the answer to the ‘what age to stop bathing w/ kids’ question is ‘when they don’t need you to clean them and you’re not having a big outdoor recreational shower.’ Or earlier if the kid or parent feels self-conscious.”
A Babble reader wisely commented on Facebook, “Personally, I don’t see why it would be inappropriate at any age, although it hardly makes sense once the kid can bathe themselves. Is there something shameful about our bodies?”
I hope to hell not. And as for a boy asking his father if he can kiss his penis, the answer is no, but it better be an answer full of kindness and information about boundaries, about being in the world, and about all the kisses that are still welcome on the appropriate places, like noses and cheeks and lips and ears.
Finally, though, as I said, it does come back to utility, and for a new mother, even relief. When my kids were babies we found bathing together the easiest and most pleasant way to get them clean. My daughter would lie on my chest while I gently lapped a little water over her tiny new feet. She was introduced to water in the most lovely way. And I got to lie down for a minute.
photo: Mike Souza/Flickr
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