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Parenting Styles: Respecting Your Child's Privacy

You've given your child a bath nearly every day of her life. You've gathered her things as she stripped to her undies and ran through a sprinkler on a hot day. So why is she suddenly locking the bathroom door and shrieking, "Don't look at me!" when you catch her changing clothes?

Modesty surfaces at this age for a number of reasons, most notably because of kids' heightened awareness of their (and other people's) bodies. A child starts to notice the physical differences between boys and girls. He may also begin comparing how he stacks up against other -- often older -- kids of the same gender, which could make him sensitive about his own body.

Six- to 8-year-olds also sense a change in the attitude of adults around them. Parents who used to let them run around the house barely dressed now ask them to cover up. "Most of us become more sensitive about a child's nudity as she gets older, even if we're not aware of it," says Vanessa Jensen, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at the Children's Hospital of the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.

Grade-schoolers also want to feel like big kids who can take care of themselves. Hiding their bodies from others is one way they assert their growing desire for independence. Still, these sudden boundaries can present a difficult adjustment for moms and dads, who may feel excluded and have a hard time knowing how to react. These tips will help guide you and your child through this transitional time.

  • Accept his new rules. Modesty is actually a good thing, and it's your job to encourage it. "As your child starts doing more things on his own, it's important for him to create boundaries around his body," says April Nesin, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, in Missouri. Don't get annoyed when he shuts the door on you while he's getting changed. And never tease him by saying things like, "I've seen it all before." Instead, let your child know you understand why he doesn't want to be seen naked by anyone -- including you.
  • Don't grant total privacy -- yet. Let your child know that there are times you must put safety before modesty. For example, you may insist on joining her in a public restroom (but you can make the situation less awkward by waiting just outside the stall). If you feel more comfortable being in the bathroom while your child bathes or showers, offer to read a book or clean out the medicine cabinet to give her some privacy. "Also explain that for medical reasons, you or her doctor will occasionally need to look at her body," says Vincent Iannelli, MD, a pediatrician in Dallas.
  • Expect inconsistency. Don't be surprised if your child locks the bathroom door one night and the next night asks you to dry her off after a shower because she's too tired to do so. "Follow your child's lead, and be there -- without question or pause -- when she asks you to help," says Dr. Nesin.
  • Teach him how to change in public. Your child may be shy about undressing at a slumber party or in the locker room of a public pool. To ease his anxiety, show him how to slip on his pj's while he's inside a sleeping bag and how to avoid revealing himself while putting on a bathing suit by wrapping a towel around his waist.
  • Watch for troubled behavior. If your child suddenly seems overly embarrassed about her body, search for a cause. If you suspect sexual mistreatment or abuse, ask her outright if anyone has touched her inappropriately or said something that made her feel uncomfortable. But don't jump to conclusions. Odds are there's a far less troublesome explanation. "She may have been around a very modest friend who made her more self-conscious, or someone made a comment about her body," says Dr. Jensen. If your child's extreme modesty persists, speak to your pediatrician or a guidance counselor.
  • Take advantage of the topic. Your child's newfound body consciousness creates lots of teachable moments. Dr. Iannelli suggests using the opportunities to discuss good hygiene habits, appropriate clothing choices, the idea that people come in all shapes and sizes, and the importance of being proud of your body -- even while keeping it private.

Your child may demand more privacy these days, but don't expect much in return. Chances are she thinks nothing of barging in on you in the bathroom or bedroom. But if you routinely walk around the house in your underwear or get dressed in front of your child, there's good reason to start covering up now. By age 7 or 8, he may be embarrassed to see you or your spouse naked (a telltale sign: Your child may giggle or turn away from you).

If your child is waiting for you outside the shower, it's fine to carry on a conversation, but put on a robe before you come out. You can also consider locking the door when you're using the bathroom or getting dressed.

Please Knock

These items will give your child the space she needs.

  • Signs for her bedroom door. Make or buy "Welcome," "Please Knock!" and "Do Not Disturb" signs that your child can hang depending on her mood.
  • A bathrobe. Towels can fall off. A robe lets your child cover up with confidence as he traipses from the bathroom to his bedroom.
  • A personal locker. Getting your child a little lockbox allows her to feel that her most prized possessions are safe -- and private.

Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the September 2006 issue of Parents magazine.