If you are Asian, chances are that growing up you’ve heard the phrase “Shame shame!” As in…
“Don’t run around naked! Shame shame!”
“Don’t lift your skirt! Shame shame!”
An illustration from the children’s book Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay
Maybe you yourself are automatically using it with your kids because you heard it from your parents. I get that the phrase is used to teach modesty but “shame” is really not an appropriate word to use. They might have a giggle about it as kids but as they grow older and more aware of their body, “shame” is a very emotionally damaging word to be subconsciously associating with their naked form.
What is shame? It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as:
- a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong
- ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment
- dishonor or disgrace
These are emotions you really don’t want your kids to associate with being naked. Kids need to know there is absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing about a naked body. There is no guilt about it. There is definitely no shame. There is just simply a right time and place to be naked. Instead of teaching shame and making them feel they should be embarrassed about their bodies, how about just stating what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. “Your body is beautiful and it’s meant for you alone. We don’t show other people our private parts”. We’ve explained to Miss A that it’s okay to be naked with Mummy and Daddy now because we need to help bathe her or put her on the toilet etc while she is still young. However, we’ve told her that as she gets older and can do things on her own, it will not become necessary to. We’ve also explained it’s fine to be naked if she needs to show a doctor something.
I’ve also heard of “shame shame” being used synonymously with “naked” e.g. during bath time. How about just stating the facts? “It’s a naked bubba!” Let’s face it, all kids like running naked from you before or after a bath and they should be allowed to enjoy it while they’re young unless there are other people outside their immediate family around.
When they start exploring themselves and asking “What’s that?” (usually some time after 18 months), I really encourage you to use the correct anatomical terms. By giving their private parts some cutesy name, it’s telling them there is something embarrassing and taboo about it. By just saying “vagina” and “penis” without any kind of hesitation, you’re saying it’s just another body part…which it is! It’s as much a part of them as their eyes or fingers. Don’t tell them off for being curious and exploring themselves but do tell them it’s only something we do in private. If they’re at home and there aren’t other people around then fight your urge to immediately jump in and stop them. Have a conversation about where they should/shouldn’t be doing it (e.g it’s fine in the bath or in their room when no one else is around etc) or just turn away if you feel uncomfortable. It’s very normal behaviour and it should be allowed as long as it’s the right time and place. If you answer their questions without batting an eyelid and give them the freedom to explore, chances are they will get over their curiousity very fast. It’s when they feel it’s something taboo that they can develop an unhealthy obsession with it (as well as lifelong feelings of guilt about their bodies and later on, sex).
Technically with public nudity, there is actually no right or wrong with kids so you can’t really tell them they can’t run around naked because it’s illegal. In Australia you will get lots of naked babies and toddlers running around fountains and it’s healthy to have a conversation about this because your kids will definitely notice this and may feel confused. With Miss A, we’ve explained to her that different families have different rules regarding being naked and liken it to wearing shoes in the house. Some families wear shoes in the house, some don’t. Some families feel it’s okay for very young kids to be naked in public, but in our family we keep our underwear on in public!
This topic is something I feel strongly about because I believe healthy body image starts in the home right from babyhood. We need to learn to be comfortable in our own skin. We need to be more open about nudity and sexuality with our kids as otherwise they will just get the answers they’re looking for from their peers and also fuel their curiousity in unhealthy ways when they’re older (e.g reckless sex or watching porn). So stop the subconscious body shaming, tell your kids they’re beautiful, have open conversations about anything they are curious about, and lead by example (e.g. keep fit and healthy and don’t complain you’re fat in front of your kids). What you say to your kids now influences their internal dialogue with themselves as teenagers and adults, and you don’t need an expert to tell you that feeling shameful about yourself is not a healthy way to live.