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Should Father Bathe with Toddler Daughter?

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: My question is related to my two-year-old daughter. My wife and I take turns taking a shower with my daughter. I'm wondering if I should continue taking showers with her or should this be the age that I start covering myself in front of her as opposed to my wife. It's easy for showering as opposed to a bath only because it's much faster and easier. And if you can possibly give me some kind of a reason to your answer to why. Can this have a psychological impact on her in the future? Thank you.

A: It is probably not necessary for you to stop showering with your daughter at the age of two. So much of our behavior around sex and gender issues is based on cultural traditions and teachings rather than any specific scientific facts. In some families, children are raised with a casual attitude toward nudity, and in others everyone covers him or herself all the time. The bottom line is that if you or your daughter seem to be uncomfortable with the shared shower, you should stop right away.

But let's go over some of the psychological facts that we do know. Most children at the age of two are starting to have some form of gender identification (meaning that a girl knows that she's a girl and a boy knows he's a boy, and knows that there's a difference between the two), but not all. About 90% of three year olds will certainly have this gender identification. Even with it, however, there is no specific reason why your child needs to be protected from seeing these gender differences, and indeed it is an important part of development for children to understand these differences. It is not until ages 4-6 that children develop what is called gender consistency and gender stability, meaning that a girl knows she will grow up to be a woman, not a man; and that even if a boy wears long hair or a skirt that he is still a boy. It is also at about this age that many children start to have some sense of modesty about being undressed in front of the opposite sex (though this is likely more learned than inherent). By age 7-9 the concept of privacy is usually well established, though determining what needs to be private is largely due to family and community teachings.

So you should make your decision about when to stop the joint showers based on your own level of comfort, along with some understanding of your child's development and level of comfort. You will not cause any psychological harm by showering with her, unless you ignore her wishes when she tells you she wants to stop.

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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.


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