Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The heat of summer is here and my 2-year-old has become a 24/7 stripper. I’ve tried to entice her to stay clothed with cute dresses and skirts in her favorite colors (Hooray — not only pink! Purple, yellow and orange as well), and she eagerly puts them on first thing in the morning. But once breakfast is over, it’s off with the clothes! It’s one thing when we are home, but she’ll strip in the park, grocery store, parking lot, at friends’ houses … you name it.
I certainly don’t want to make her uncomfortable about her body, but it’s gone too far. It’s embarrassing! And I do worry about the day when she gets a lurid look and inappropriate comment from someone. Where’s the right balance and how do I broach this? — Concerned mom in sunny Livermore
Dear concerned mom: Ah … the pleasures of sunny, hot locales. Here in Berkeley, where the fog rolls in most afternoons, budding nudists are discouraged by temperature. But, seriously, this is an important issue because overreacting could lead to your daughter’s developing unhealthy attitudes about her body, while just “letting it all hang out” is awkward and may invite, as you say, unwanted and damaging reactions.
At age 2, your daughter is too young for any kind of explanation about “mean people” out there, complex social etiquettes, etc. Stick to a very simple rule: You can be naked at home, but not in other places. At home you can be naked when you are playing, but not when we are eating dinner, have guests, etc. Limit the home restrictions to three or four basic situations and ignore the nudity the rest of the time.
How many restrictions you’ll impose at home depends on how comfortable you and your partner are with nudity. In some families, nakedness is nothing special. In other families, parents want to be covered up (to varying degrees) at all times. Either scenario is perfectly normal and healthy, and you need not sweat it. Your child will gradually adopt the family culture regarding nudity. In fact, the less you “preach” and the more you just do what comes naturally, the smoother things will go.
Even in “clothing 24/7 families,” many toddlers and preschoolers go through a nudist phase. Sometimes it can be pretty awkward, so here are a few simple tips (beyond the rules I mentioned above):
Encourage the naked times to happen in a back yard and in those rooms of the house that are not exposed to outsiders (and draw the curtains).
Comment about it as little as possible (especially if it makes you get all uptight).
Enforce the home rules about activities requiring clothing, making sure there’s plenty of time in the day when nudity is OK.
You can keep the house on the cool side (using air conditioning in Livermore or letting the fog in here in Berkeley) if you’d like to gently minimize the frequency and duration of naked times.
When you go out, dress your daughter in overalls with snaps (pants or dresses) put on backward, so the snaps are on her back. Keep the shoulder straps snug. Some Houdinis will get out of anything, but most kids will let it be. You can also keep her hands busy with carrying things, a fanny pack she can zip and unzip, etc.
As your child matures, you can graduate to somewhat more involved explanations as well as rewards for complying with your instructions.
Lots of kids between ages 4 and 6 are curious about boys’ and girls’ different genitals and will find an opportunity to take a look. If you catch them in the act, don’t panic, don’t faint, don’t lecture. Very matter-of-factly say: “When we have guests we stay dressed in our clothes. So everybody put your clothes on now.” I think it’s wise to inform the other kid’s parents — in a non-alarmed way. Next play date keep an eye out and, meanwhile, use pictures or anatomically correct dolls to educate your child.
Repeated stripping, when your child seems like she “has to do it,” may be a signal of something brewing, but that’s a topic for another column.