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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 have 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 6 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 will impact their psychological development and self-image.
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 3 children, ages one, 3, and 5. At some point, they transitioned from nudity as a lifestyle to a combination of lifestyle and indoctrination. According to Tyson, their education began when their first daughter turned 3.
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.
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.
I’ve never been comfortable with my own nudity, let alone that of others.
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 on being naked in front of their children, but there is no concerted effort on their part to shield their children from parental nudity. I spoke with Corey, a married father of 4 and 5-year-old boys. 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 2 boys is a big factor.
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 girl 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.
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 3-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.’ Jeffrey’s wife usually showers with their daughter but Jeffrey steps up to the plate when his wife is otherwise occupied. Their daughter will be entering pre-school next year — one could imagine a surprise visit from CPS if their daughter casually mentions seeing “daddy’s hotdog” in conversation with her teacher.
They also don’t want the mere site of a naked person to freak them out, or make them feel uncomfortable.
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 5 and 7. Anna doesn’t actively avoid the girls when she’s naked, and 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 7-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 5. Anna and Brian weren’t sure if she 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 kids 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 nudists. Erin is 27 years-old. It was common to see her mother naked in the home and vice versa. Even as adults, they 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.
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. 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, 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 2-year-old girl. Now Jamie’s not a practicing nudist, and she’s more reserved than one would assume considering her nudist upbringing. She showers with her daughter but she doesn’t join her in the bathtub. Jamie’s 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.
If children happen to see a naked man or woman they won’t automatically point, laugh, or shriek in horror.
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: Male erections. While men and women both have private parts, only fathers have visible sex signals — no one wants to expose their child an erect penis. The Stewarts have no problem telling 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. 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. We can’t read minds, but an erect penis speaks for itself.
I’m still not sure how my wife and I will handle nudity around our twin girls. Fortunately, they’re only 6 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. If my 3-year-old daughter wants to have a conversation while I’m on the toilet, I’m probably going to engage her. I’d like make it a teachable moment.
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. So, whatever your nudity philosophy, you should consider having a frank discussion with your child’s school or daycare 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. Remember, there’s good naked and bad naked. Playing in the bathtub with your 3-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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