Anyone who's lived on my parents' block for more than 21 years remembers my brother naked. For the first four years of his life, he wore clothes only under extreme duress. I didn't realize this was controversial.
When Charlie did wear clothes, and I use the term loosely, it was usually a "day nightie" - a large tee shirt of my dad's. If one can find a clothed picture of him from this era, it will find him in one of these jersey muumuus, which I think he favored because they were easy to whip off. We all remember the famous occasion when he came home from nursery school, ripped off his clothes and went for a euphoric run in the snow of the front yard, with my mother in hot pursuit. (I also remember an early act, also involving me and a cousin, known as "The Three Naked Kids" -I think it mostly featured jumping between twin beds- but that's another story.)
This sort of devotion to nudism is not uncommon in young children; most experts say it's a phase that they soon outgrow. And, as a piece in the Times shows, plenty of laid-back parents are cool with it. Others, as we know only too well from our forays into the land of "I Saw Your Nanny," find it shocking and potentially dangerous. As the article puts it,
For many parents, allowing a child to run around naked at home is perfectly natural, an expression of physical freedom that represents the essence of childhood, especially in the summer. But for others, unclad bodies are an affront to civility, a source of discomfort and a potentially dangerous attraction for pedophiles. These clashing sensibilities can create conflict, even when the nudity in question takes place at home.
Of course, some parents are worried about naked kids relieving themselves with equal freedom. Sometimes it's cultural; it seems European parents are less bothered, in general, by childhood nudity. Many cite generational conflicts; less permissive grandparents find the public nudity inappropriate. Other adults feel it's okay - up to a certain age. But what is "too old?" When should a child start feeling some native modesty? Should kids of different sexes stop mixing at some point? When does it become inappropriate for his siblings to see him naked - and why? Some parents worry about public masturbation, something they feel needs to be kept strictly private. One child psychologist in the article says the bulk of a child's attitude, as in so many things, will come directly from the parents, saying, "If someone has what appears to be an overly strong reaction to seeing young children running around naked, it tells us about their own hang-ups, their own inner conflicts."
Of course, the issue is more complicated than that. There's a distinct difference between those adults who are shocked by the mere notion of unfettered nudity and those who are shocked by it when it involves a host's child running amok amongst guests, nude. A lot of parents in the article don't make this distinction, and let their kids run naked amongst friends, guests, other kids whose parents don't share the same views. While I, as a guest, wouldn't personally care - and think people can do what they like in their own homes - it's also true there's a fine line between letting a child express his freedom and feel no Genesis-style shame in nudity, and letting him think he makes the rules.
It's so hard: I remember once hearing someone on the radio say something I found thought-provoking: that in our obsession with the risks of pedophilia, we can no longer look at the total innocence of childhood nudity and not see potential prey. As such, we're unwittingly sexualizing children, too. But at the same time, knowing what we do, we can't ignore it. I can't imagine there are more predators out there than in prior eras, despite our increased acknowledgment of it, but as in so many aspects of parenting, the balance between mindfulness and neurosis is tricky. At the end of the day, if a kid wants to be naked, he will: and doesn't it make it a bigger thing to stigmatize it? After all, it's not the kid's nudity that's "causing" sick people's pedophilia, and it seems to me important that a child not get that confused. The 25-year-old hipster my brother is to day, after all, might regard his halcyon days of nudity with embarrassment - but only because he's an adult.
When Do They Need A Fig Leaf? [NY Times]
Related: I Saw A Crazy: 'Nanny' Policing Goes Off Rails