A couple of cute toddlers playing together in the bath is domestic bliss. But putting two slightly older kids in the tub together — regardless of their sexes or even their relationship — can start to feel like a recipe for awkwardness or the potential subject of future therapy sessions. But how much of that weirdness is just parents’ projections? Quite a lot. The truth about little kids sharing baths is that it’s only weird when they think it’s weird. And, if you give them a chance, they’ll tell you.
“Kids will develop their own modesty at different levels,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency physician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Some four- or five-year-olds feel very strongly about privacy and some kids don’t care about it until they are eight or nine years old.”
Essentially, this is about consent. Once it’s no longer comfortable for a child to share bath time, it’s time for individual baths or showers. Full stop. Younger children especially may miss playing in the bath with their siblings or friends, but that’s no reason to compromise the other child’s modesty. When that modesty develops depends on a lot: the kids, their relationships, their sex, the age gap, family norms, and the local community. It’s unpredictable which children will care about nudity so it’s important not to assume that one’s laissez-fare about clothes attitudes is genetic.
When Should Siblings Stop Taking Baths Together?
- When One of Them Wants To Stop – kids develop their own sense of modesty at their own pace, but once they decide they want privacy, support them
- Before They Go To School – a kindergartner casually mentioning bathing with his sister is going to raise some eyebrows, even though it may be said in complete innocence.
- Bodies Aren’t Bad – and they shouldn’t be treated like they are. Modesty and privacy don’t mean that topics should be forbidden or words bowdlerized with cute names. When a child is being examined by a doctor, both parent and child need to be able to speak about why it is okay in that situation but not another
It’s also important to remember that once kids can talk, they rarely shut up and a loose-lipped five-year-old can open a can of worms at school. There’s a lot of long-established social norms to navigate when it comes to protecting naked kids. This isn’t about social “hang-ups.” These norms are in place to protect children. In short, it may be better to push kids to bathe alone if they don’t express interest fairly early on. The kid might not be in danger, but sometimes the path of least resistance is just easier.
That doesn’t mean that kids should be made to feel bad about their bodies – that’s where people get the aforementioned hang-ups. Co-bathing kids are going to be curious about their physical differences or similarities, and they are going to theorize about and discuss them. Parents should definitely be on hand to guide these discussions before they veer off into the wild, wooly, and loosely theoretical. Bath time is, after all, a natural time to address any observations as they pop up, to correct any misconceptions, and to educate children on the proper terms and proper care of their bodies.
“If we don’t use a proper name and make up some other silly name, it makes the child feel weird and silly about that body part,” warns Dr. Murray. If another adult comes along and makes them feel weird and strange about that body part, there’s a pattern established. That pattern may make a child focus on the nature of their body, not the behavior of the adult.
Calling genitals childish names and constantly putting off conversations until kids are older can lead to some bad decisions when an adolescent wants to act older. If a parent is embarrassed to talk about a body part, that will make a child embarrassed to ask parents when they have questions.
The ultimate goal is teaching children how to take care of and exercise an appropriate amount of authority over their own bodies. That level of propriety changes as they get older and learn more, but clinical terms and matter-of-fact (while age-appropriate) discussion gives kids some information about their bodies that is going to counter some of the ridiculous things they’re going to hear on the school bus. Being able to dictate when they bathe alone is an early step toward respecting themselves and others.