Updated: Jun 11
I was recently asked if I would post something more about familial nudity and I said I was pretty sure I'd written an essay on the topic. Well I found it. So here it it.
Here is the simple fact, while there are loads of opinions and anecdotal stories about family nudity, there is very little real scientific research on the impact of familial nudity on children. Beware anyone who says there is solid empirical evidence one way or another. While one might expect the modern attacks on familial nudity come primarily from the religious right, you would be wrong. The two most influential voices on this subject over the past 150 years have been anything but highly religious.
First Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, was obsessed with sexuality and childhood experiences. He was convinced (with not one bit of scientific evidence) that exposure to nudity and/or sexuality was inherently damaging to children, and his legacy on this continues to influence professionals today. The other great influence on child rearing in North America was Dr. Benjamin Spock. In all practical respects the modern American parental education system begins with him, and his views still dominate professional opinions today. Spock was very clear that even young children were disturbed by parental nudity and somehow it made them feel inferior to their parents due to their lack of sexual development. Again, not one bit of proof was offered, but for 60 years his views on this are what you will hear from most child development experts.
To this day, we hear "protect the children" as the reason to censor nudity (and sex) on TV and movies. While there is a mountain of evidence to show exposure to violence in media is harmful to children, there is no such corresponding evidence of harm from seeing images of nudity or non-violent sex. Yet, this makes no difference when "child advocates" equally oppose nudity and violence in the media. They use the evidence that show linkage between exposure to sexual violence and damage to children to condemn all human sexuality down to the briefest image of a female nipple. If there was not already the underlying belief that seeing adult nudity and sex harms children, this would be easily seen as an irrational approach. Sadly, that belief in the inherent harm of nudity (and sex) to children is deeply embedded.
What real evidence we have about exposure of children to adult nudity comes in two forms. One from anthropology and one from a limited number of studies done primarily with college students. Anthropology tells us that attitudes about familial nudity are 100% socially constructed. In other words, contrary to what Freud, Spock and others declare to be true, human children have no more psychological need to be shielded from seeing adult genitals than do other primates. Young children just don't notice nudity, and older children react to adult nudity based on what they perceive as "normal." Kids do have very negative reactions to things that seem out of place and/or threatening to their security, but they are taught what to expect and not to expect. Knowing what is "normal" and to be expected, is not inborn. In many societies, even today, familial nudity is of no consequence. Interestingly, studies in Scandinavia (where situational family nudity is common) indicate that by middle childhood children have a firm understanding of when nudity is normal and when it is not.
There has been some scientific study (but not a lot) done on the long term impact of family nudity in North America. The results not only debunk the notion that kids who grow up in the presence of adult nudity are damaged, but it suggests that young adults raised that way have a better body image than those who do not. To be complete, the same research suggests that such young people were slightly more sexually active as teens than those who did not live in homes with open familial nudity. If you think teenage sex is inherently bad, perhaps this might be an argument against familial nudity; however the study I read suggested that the nudity might not have caused the increased sexual behavior, but the same familial attitudes that did not condemn nudity likely would not condemn teen sex either. In our home that was certainly the case. Parental nudity was not a big deal nor did we pressure our kids to abstain from sex as teenagers.
All that being said, the impacts of parental nudity on the psychological health of teens and young adults is so slight that it need not be a factor in how parents raise their children. The real question is what do you want your kids to believe about nudity and/or sex. It is simply a matter of parental values and choice. Contrary to the nudist beliefs, family nudity does not make children better, but neither does it make them worse. This conclusion is also supported by my decades of working with teens and families. Like so many other parenting issues, there is not one right way. But it is important that new parents discuss this as part of their parenting planning.
In our case we chose to make nudity normalized in our home. Growing up we did not tell the kids how much or little to wear around the house. Mom and Dad went naked at times, but mostly wore clothes. When the kids were younger we had a home pool, and Mom and Dad only wore swimsuits about half the time. Most of the time the kids wore theirs, but not always. We spent several summers at a beach front hotel where many of the women went topless. The kids did not seem to notice the women (including Mom) wearing only tiny thongs were anything the least bit unusual. Mom and Dad went nude at other more private beaches, and again the kids didn't seem to take any special notice. Those were our choices and our (now grown) kids are very well adjusted.
All that to say, familial nudity is not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad, not even good and better; but, rather a matter of values and the personal viewpoint of parents.