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Should your children see you naked?!

 Photo: Courtesy

Being a father has thus far been delightful for John. So delightful that he says he wouldn't change a thing – the good and the bad.

The good would be like when his three year old daughter clings onto him in a tight hug when he comes home from work. And the bad? "When it's my time to change a full diaper," he says with playful smile. Off course, in reality, changing diapers is no trouble to a doting father like John.

Not long ago, John added something else onto the 'bad' list: when his daughter catches glimpses of his naked body. Which, he says, "catches me off-guard and I have to react quickly".

He still recalls one occurrence when the young girl wriggled between his feet while he was letting off a steady stream of urine in the bathroom, oblivious of her presence.

"She called out, "Daddy", from down below. Everything stopped. And I didn't know what to do. I was terrified to imagine how much she saw and what questions she had afterwards."

Like his daughter, it took him a while to digest what had happened. It left him ashen-faced. But his mind was racing.

"He has every reason to worry," Philomena Ndambuki, a professor of educational and child psychology at Kenyatta University, points out. "Children develop beliefs about sex and sexuality from such interactions."

Perpetual Kabaya, a mother of two, believes that human nakedness is very much intertwined with sex as a subject.

Well, for her, there is only one way to go about it. "A child should be protected from their parent's nudity to prevent them from developing the wrong ideas about sex and sexuality," she says.

She has a radical formula to prevent such nude mishaps from happening. "By eight months, my babies have their own beds and do not see me bathing or dressing up. These are private activities which I expect never to be breached. In so doing, I am teaching them what privacy is and how to go about it," she says.

The rule is not full proof. There are times, she confesses, when her daughters have caught her dressing up.

"The elder one [now 10] has always asked questions. She will want to know why I look different from her," Perpetual recalls.

During such moments, she grabs the chance "to educate her about the body of a woman: what it is like to be a woman and why she shouldn't expose her body to certain people".

Perpetual admits to being constantly aware of the media's portrayal of male and female bodies.

"It is important that they [children] get the right information from their parents. The world easily fills in with the wrong perspective," she says.

But still, why is she strongly against being naked before her daughters?

"I wouldn't want them to grow up believing that it is fine to be naked in front of other people. They may easily fall prey [to paedophiles]. I also want them to know that it is not normal for naked human bodies to be close to each other," she says.

Being seen naked by her daughters was horrifying enough but bringing the girls' father into the picture was worse.

"Their father is a no-go zone when it comes to nakedness. The girls know that when daddy is alone in the bedroom, nobody goes in. They know that no one gets close to daddy in the bathroom or when he needs his privacy," Perpetual says.

Prof. Ndambuki admonishes: "Parents need to be keen; they ought to tell when their children are finding it difficult to comprehend their naked bodies. Aside from offering age-appropriate counsel the parent needs to make an effort to protect their child's innocence," she says.

But there is a new aspect to it: Culture. According to her, it would be foolhardy to ignore tradition; to adopt the laissez faire style of handling nakedness.

Prof Ndambuki says: "As Africans we have certain levels of privacy around the human body. When the children are grown they won't expose their nakedness to their parents either. Allowing nakedness between parents and children is playing Russian roulette."

Indeed, our culture is an indisputable force to reckon with. And Susan Wanjiku, also a mother of two – a boy and a girl – has let culture influence how she relates with her children.

"I will never be naked in front of my children. I think children need to know that privacy, for every human being, is paramount. It is also important that they don't get confused with the weight of what they are faced with. Keeping my body away from them is one way of protecting them from wrong illusions and perceptions," she says.

Susan's view is greatly informed by her own upbringing.

"I was taught to bathe in privacy. I was also taught to dress in privacy. This is what I want to give to my own children," she says.

When children are growing up their curiosity grows, argues Wandia Maina, a psychologist.

"It is not weird at all that children will reach a phase when they want to discover everything. That includes how they look and how their parents look," she says.

Edith and Timothy Mathenge, parents to a 2 year old, arrived at the decision to be discreet with their daughter when she started 'looking' and 'touching'.

Their daughter's inquisitive mind, they realised, was in need of constant discovery: to know her environment and everything in it.

As the girl's father, and a member of the opposite sex, Timothy reinforced in his daughter the notion of privacy.

"When I want to have a shower, and she is curious to find out what I am doing in the bathroom, I tell her 'private' and she will leave," he says.

According to Edith, at 2, her daughter is not able to comprehend the form of an adult body.

"She can easily get confused by what she sees," she says. "I want her to learn at a rate which she will be able to understand through her own growth and development."

And there is always the risk of the small girl making unwanted moves on other adults she meets.

"She is just a baby but that would be considered bad manners," Edith says.

The Mathenges are sticking to the rule of discretion, and that they say, is not likely to change any time soon.

Addressing body confidence

There is no definitive study that has explored the subject of parental nudity with regard to their children. No one knows if it affects them or not. But Wandia argues that how parents handle the ensuing questions has a bearing on the eventual outcome of such exposure.

"Every parent should ask themselves, 'why am I exposing my nakedness to my children?'. Is there a positive result they are hoping for?" Wandia asks.

African culture discourages such explicit interactions between children and parents, she says.

"That is because our culture does not see it as 'normal' behaviour to see your parent's nakedness," she says.

Wandia warns that parents who may feel drawn to 'an open relationship' with their children should ponder if by so doing they are making it right for them to engage in naked interactions with other adults as well.

"In which case there is a real possibility of the children being abused sexually," she says.

A child bumping onto their naked parent, Wandia says, is not ideal. It is however, best used as a route to address questions pertaining to body image and human sexuality.

Roselyn Kigen, an author on the subject of parenting, admits that nakedness is a dicey subject that cannot be fully dissected without pondering cultural implications.

"There are societies where parents feel comfortable being seen naked by their children. As for ours, there are restrictions," she says.

Roselyn is a mother of three girls – the oldest is now 20.

"With my daughters I have been open. When they asked questions I addressed them objectively. But this interaction is between us and not their father or any other male person," Roselyn says.

Were there any benefits to her approach?

Roselyn believes, from her own analysis, that her daughters have grown up confident in their bodies: with a better understanding of womanhood.

She says: "My daughters and I are open with each other. They feel confident sharing with me anything regarding their bodies. In many ways this is good because instead of hiding and suffering in silence I have the opportunity to address their issues."

In her home, Roselyn is the first port of call. If it is a matter that the girls' father needs to be roped into, she, as their mother, will escalate the conversation "appropriately".

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