I went viral this week: “ Naked with Children,” a brief, slightly provocative piece I wrote for The New York Times's Motherlode blog hit a nerve. (I know now to use the word “naked” in everything I write.)
At our house, my partner and I walk around naked: We don't bother covering up between bathroom and bedroom, and leave doors open when dressing. There's something to how comfortably we've moved from the days of breast-feeding, to shared baths, to the kids brushing their teeth while I'm in the shower – a connection closed doors don't offer. I love that we've defied the prudish modesty that makes it necessary to hide.
So far, my sons, 8 and 12, remain unfazed. In fact, I often find them wandering around or watching TV naked. I expect my children will eventually start covering up, and when the time comes, I'll respect their decision, I wrote. But I'll feel a sense of loss.
I'm used to my parents providing advice and constructive criticism on my parenting methods – whether I agree or not, they've earned the right to weigh in. But it seems that putting “Naked with Children” in public gave the whole world that right.
I suspected it would get a rise (if I dare use that expression), but didn't expect the viral hoo-ha and vitriol that ensued. Gawker.com's Max Read, under the headline “Mother Mourns Loss of Nude Children in Bizarre New York Times Column,” ended his piece with: “… And that's cool. It's, for some inexplicable reason, legal. Different strokes, as they say. […]The whole concept makes me want to burn my couch, put on three sweaters and never talk to my family again.”
He was not my only critic to raise legality. A comment on the Times site: “Mourning the loss of not being able to see your child nude any more? I can barely type that without being creeped out. This really seems like it should be illegal.”
Oh? Which part? Should only parents be charged, or should kids over 15 be dealt a fine for baring it at home? What disturbs me is the assumed link between nudity and sex, and the implication of sexual impropriety.
People who know nothing about us feel confident telling me I am a creepy, incompetent, boundary-less pervert – or, at best, uninformed about the complex nature of sexuality and happy to fly my parts in the faces of my innocent children, leaving the tough choice of rejecting my body up to them, and unconcerned about risks to their safety.
More than reading the piece, people read into it – projected onto it their own anxieties, insecurities, shame, fears and moralistic judgment. I'm not arguing nudity is the way for everyone; I understand that modesty, discomfort, history or values inform those choices. Being naked or clothed isn't what makes you a bad parent (although judging others with no notion of their circumstances might make you a poor role model).
What was interesting to me was how kids set the nudity agenda within most other families I surveyed: They decide whether they want to be seen, whom they want to be seen by and who they want to see. They draw the line when they are ready. My survey was limited to a tiny sample, but those findings were consistent.
Many father-knows-best commenters claimed that kids are unequipped to exercise this kind of agency – which might say more about the moralistic heavy-handedness in those homes than about what's good for kids.
Should all decisions be left up to children? Of course not. But as the parents who know them, dare I say, intimately, shouldn't we have a good sense what decisions they can and can't make? All kids are not created equal.
It's possible that my cohort of parents is the pushover generation. But our kids are exposed to so much that's outside our control, it makes it less workable to make unilateral decisions on their behalves. As a result, there's much negotiation over homework, walking alone to school, computer time, snacking and chores – even issues such as cutting ties with problematic friends, or continuing attention-deficit medication or not.
But the decision about changes to the nudity policy is different: In my opinion, it's non-negotiable. And it's in the kids' hands. When they're uncomfortable, it's time to put it away. Cues may be non-verbal, but they'll be clear.
I'll take the criticism that my approach to nudity may be more about my needs than about my kids' needs. They wouldn't likely miss my naked body that much. But for now there's an ease, a comfort, and a lack of self-consciousness among all of us around nudity in our home. I'll wait for someone else to rock that boat.
Toronto writer Aviva Rubin blogs at nothinginmoderation.ca