Q. My wife thinks there's nothing wrong with taking a bath naked with our two boys, even though they are now 1 and 3. Frankly, this makes me uncomfortable. I say it's time she covered up in front of our children, but she thinks I'm being a prude. How can we resolve this difference without arguing about it anymore?
A. You'd probably never see this question in a European magazine, muses sex therapist Dennis Sugrue, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and coauthor of Sex Matters for Women (Guilford Press). Despite our culture's constant barrage of sexy media images, "here in the United States, we get pretty uptight when it comes to baring it all," he observes.
"Yet, the truth is that nudity in the home, when handled in a respectful, matter-of-fact way, is perfectly natural and certainly not harmful." In fact, research suggests that children who have seen their parents nude do not grow up to be emotionally scarred, but instead are more likely to be accepting of their own bodies and comfortable with their own sexuality.
If your wife is fine being naked around your sons, they won't think anything of it, other than showing some natural curiosity about body differences. ("Hey, why do only boys have penises?") Nudity is not the same thing as sexuality. However, if you're uncomfortable about her nudity, your sons will pick up on that, and may start feeling shame or increased curiosity.
Use this issue as a springboard for clarifying your values and how you and your wife will teach them to your children. What is it about your wife's nudity in front of the kids that bothers you most? For instance, if seeing her naked makes you lusty, then of course you'll feel weird having those feelings around your children. Alternatively, why does she feel so relaxed about it? Sharing your own most formative sexual experiences -- both good and bad -- will help you both think things through.
Ideally, these discussions should lead to a compromise you're both comfortable with. For instance, you might agree that it's fine for her to bathe with the boys only when you're not present. But if you still think the practice is wrong across the board, stand up for your opinion. It certainly won't harm the boys for your wife not to take baths with them, and maybe this is just one of those times where she'll have to compromise for the sake of your comfort.
Use a sense of humor when you express your views, rather than being judgmental or shaming, and your wife will probably be less argumentative, and more gracious, about staying out of the family tub.
Holly Robinson lives with her husband and their five kids outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2004.