Trying to dress a toddler. We’ve all been there. You spend an arduous half hour chasing your three-year-old around the house as you try to dress him. He finally calms down enough for you to pull a shirt over his head and tie his shoes. You make it to the door. You’re reaching for your keys and your purse when you turn around and much to your dismay, your son is now stark naked.
He pulled off his clothes yet again, and now you have to start over, late for wherever you’re going.
If you’ve experienced this on a regular basis with your toddler, you are not alone. Most young children don’t like wearing clothes. They kick off their shoes. They take off their dresses and pants. They say they don’t like wearing socks, underwear or jackets—anything you deem essential for being outside or in public. They don’t care.
It’s cute at first, even if it is also frustrating. Most people aren’t offended by a naked one- or two-year-old. Eventually though, you know your child will have to start wearing clothes. They will have to learn about modesty. They will have to learn how and why to cover certain parts of their bodies. The question for parents then is, when and how can you get your child to start wearing clothes, at least in public?
Why your child doesn’t like to wear clothes
It might help to understand why your child doesn’t like wearing clothes in the first place. There are a few reasons children strip down as often as possible.
1. Children have no concept of modesty and private parts. They aren’t ashamed of their bodies, and they shouldn’t be. Don’t you wish you still felt as free and accepting of your body as you did when you were a child? Kids don’t feel the need to cover up because they don’t understand their own anatomy yet.
2. They may have sensory processing disorder (SPD), a disorder that makes processing certain senses difficult. If your child is sensitive to certain fabrics because they’re itchy or “don’t feel right,” they could have SPD. Talk to your pediatrician to learn more.
3. Children run warmer than adults. Many parents are worried about their children getting too cold, but toddlers run hotter than adults due to their metabolic rate. Your child might be throwing off her clothes or her pajamas at night because she’s feeling too warm.
When should kids start wearing clothes?
Regardless of your child’s reason for not wanting to wear clothes, you know that at some point your child will need to start wearing clothes more consistently. It won’t always be acceptable for them to run around your home (or elsewhere) naked.
It might be reassuring to know that kids will develop their own sense of modesty. As they become more body aware, they will naturally want to cover their bodies when they’re around other people and eventually even when they’re at home. However, this happens differently for each child.
“Some four- or five-year-olds feel very strongly about privacy,” says Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency physician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, “and some kids don’t care about it until they are eight or nine years old.”
Here’s the guidance I typically give for what is normal and OK at various ages and stages.
Preschoolers: Bathing with a younger sibling, keeping the bathroom door open while using it, or walking around the house without clothes is perfectly normal for kids younger than age five. Kids love the feel of freedom that being naked affords. Many parents bathe toddlers and preschoolers in the bath together to save time (and allow the kids to play). This is totally fine.
This is also a good time to start talking about bodies and private parts with your child. You can use anatomically correct language (“penis,” “vagina,” etc.), even with young children. This is crucial not just for their knowledge but for their safety. They will know which parts of their bodies are just for them to see and they will be able to name those parts of their bodies. Should anything happen to them, knowing what their body parts are called will allow you to know what exactly happened. This is an important part of keeping your child safe, and it introduces your child to the idea of modesty and why we cover certain parts of our bodies.
Kindergarten (age five): This is when a child can start covering up. Gently begin to teach your youngster that her body is very beautiful, but that it is private. If your son goes to the beach, he needs to wear a bathing suit. If your daughter goes to a friend’s house, she needs to close the bathroom door while using the toilet. This teaches kids body boundaries. It shows them that they are in charge of their bodies and that they have a say over what happens. And—it helps preserve their modesty. Since many children become aware of modesty around this age, your child may start doing some of these things on her own. For others, you may have to teach them.
Early elementary school: As children enter the early elementary school years, they will become more aware of being naked around the opposite sex. This is normal. As they become more aware of bodies and private parts, they will feel less comfortable being naked in front of people with different parts than they have.
At home, your child will probably still feel comfortable being naked. This is OK, but when they get out of the bath or come out of their room naked, gently remind them to put their clothes on because their bodies are special and private.
When it comes to teaching kids about modesty, my No. 1 rule is remind, don’t reprimand. Kids should never feel shamed for walking around naked or for feeling comfortable in their bodies because that is the ultimate goal for any child: to feel comfortable in his body at every age and stage.
Of course, puberty makes that incredibly difficult. Feeling awkward and ashamed during that time is normal and developmental, but parents should do everything they can to make their children feel good in their bodies.
We know as adults how difficult it is to feel comfortable in our own skin and to accept our bodies. Let’s make it easier on our kids.
What if you have kids of various ages?
In families with children of multiple ages, older children will care more about modesty than younger ones. Usually, they will tell the younger ones to put their clothes on because they have friends coming over or simply because they are maturing and starting to feel modest even in front of their younger brothers and sisters.
To protect the feelings of your older kids, it’s important for you to teach your younger kids to give their older siblings privacy.
When it comes to modesty and kids, kids need more guidance than teaching. They will naturally start to become more modest as they become more body aware. Teach them about their bodies, remind them to wear clothes when needed and cultivate the belief they, and we, were born with—that our bodies are good and nothing to be ashamed of but worth protecting.