Kids Celebrate their Birthday Suits
By ELIZABETH KENNEDY -- Associated Press
NEW YORK -- Kids are refreshingly uninhibited. They pick their noses if they need to and don't worry about who sees them. They sing loudly whether or not they can carry a tune. And they announce their need to use the bathroom without regard to manners.
But sometimes kids can be a little too free, especially when it comes to their clothes, or, more specifically, to taking off their clothes. Children around ages 3 and 4 often enjoy being undressed, according to Dr. Paula Elbirt, who says it's normal behavior. It feels good! says Elbirt, who is the Manhattan pediatrician behind the advice Web site drpaula.com. But there is no clear rule on whether parents should allow their children to parade naked at home. (However, there is a consensus that it is inappropriate for kids to be naked in public once they are out of diapers.)
Dr. Kyle Pruett, a medical doctor and a clinical professor of psychology at Yale Child Study Center, calls nudity at home a hugely sensitive cultural issue that varies by state, country, climate and ethnic background. Elbirt notes that Americans generally are more shy about showing body parts than Europeans, and people who live in warmer climates will allow kids to go nude for the sake of convenience. The decision also varies by family. Some parents feel that their child's nudity is natural and cute, while others find it completely inappropriate. Lorri Milane, the assistant manager at Sears Portrait Studio in the Staten Island Mall in New York, says about 30 percent of parents ask for naked-baby pictures, but employees are not allowed to take photographs of children who aren't wearing at least a diaper regardless of age.
Still, kids who like to play in their birthday suits in the comfort of their own homes can worry some parents: Why do they do it? Should it be allowed? What ages are appropriate?
Elbirt says that by the age of 4, kids become more aware of their naked bodies, so they should learn at that time that a body is private. One way to do this is for the parents to keep their own bodies private. For the child to be exposed to the adult version of nudity is probably too stimulating, she says. There is no hard-and-fast rule about when a parent should cover up, but Elbirt says parents should trust their instincts. When your child looks at you differently, and you'll know when that is, it's time.
Elbirt acknowledges that privacy of body is a difficult lesson to teach. If you make a big issue out of their nudity you're bound to transmit negative feelings, she says. And making strict rules about keeping clothed can exacerbate the problem. If you're rigid about the nudity issue, it's like forbidden fruit. But Elbirt says it's OK to curb the behavior. You can say to the child, it feels wonderful to feel the wind on your body. But you have to set limits. We teach children to follow societal rules and to make other people comfortable, she says. Moreover, she says allowing a child to be unclothed after a certain age can be mentally unhealthy. Children above the age of 4 or 5 are living in a much more cognitive place. There's room for too many questions in their own minds. It's no longer a personal sensual experience, she explains.
That's what has Theresa Duva of Nutley, N.J., worried. Her 6- and 7-year-old sons have a habit of playing in the nude with their underwear on their heads. They think it's funny, she says, sounding a little perplexed. I think it's inappropriate. Duva fears that shepis got little nudists on her hands. But Yalepis Pruett is not alarmed by the behavior. When you are in cahoots with a sibling, then you are taking pleasure in tempting a social norm, he explains. But it's unlikely they'd do it with their peers. Duva says they only do it at home. Thank God!
This article first appeared on March 28, 2001.