Children's Perceptions of Nudity & Society

Many parents are reluctant to allow their children to be naked during play or sleep. When they explain this to the child they often do not use moral reasons, but pseudo-practical ones (such as, "You might catch a cold").

Parents also transfer their discomfort with nakedness to the naming of body parts, often using vague terms such as "it" or "down there," rather than penis, scrotum, vulva, clitoris, and anus. Frequently, the genitals and perineum are not mentioned at all.

Ron and Juliette Goldman (1981) interviewed 838 children from North America, England, Australia, and Sweden. The children ranged in age from five to 15 years old. Each child was individually interviewed and asked questions designed to elicit responses indicating the child's understanding of wearing clothing, nudity (as viewed by society as a whole), and modesty.

Researchers asked the children three questions: "Suppose we all lived in a nice warm place; should we need to wear clothes?" "Why should this be so?" (i.e., what are the reasons for saying "yes" or "no") and, "Some people feel shy or funny about [revealing] certain parts of the body; why should this be so?"

There were variations in the exact wording for younger or slower [sic] children, but after trial interviews the above questions appeared to have little ambiguity for children of all ages. The responses were coded and scored in order to assess each child's level of cognitive reasoning for the answers given. No references were made to the family nudity status, although this may have been an influential factor.

This study found that English-speaking children were the most adamant that clothes were necessary, even in hot climates; and North American children were the most insistent of all. English speakers were also less likely to advance to the highest level of moral thinking with regard to reasons for embarrassment when nude, and reasons for wearing or not wearing clothes.

The Swedish children seemed to score consistently higher, and seemed to be much less clothes-insistent although they live in a colder climate and would have more reason to expect that clothing should be worn. The Goldmans point out that sex education in Swedish schools is compulsory after age eight, and the northern European traditions of sauna and FKK ("Freik-perkultur," or "free body culture") are well established in Sweden.

This cultural difference is not as evident when examining the reasons for wearing clothes and why people might feel embarrassed when naked. The picture revealed by children's perceptions was one in which nakedness, and especially sexual nakedness, is strongly tinged with guilt.

As age increases, the need for conformity becomes more apparent to children. It was evident through many children's answers that low-level thinking was conveyed through parents' modesty training. The "pseudo-practical" reasoning mentioned above is used. Rather than revealing parental discomfort with nudity and sexuality, the parent tries to appeal to a concrete, rational reason.

It does indicate, however, that the sex education process has to overcome myriad adult mythologies and rationalisations that prevent children from understanding, accepting, and enjoying the body and its sex organs as natural and normal.