Rub-a-dub-dub, two adorable kids in a tub — what could be cuter than watching your favorite little boy and girl splash together during bath time?
Getting both of your little ones in the bath at the same time is a time-saving trick parents have been relying on for decades. It conserves water, solves the problem of what to do with your restless toddler when your preschooler has spaghetti in her hair and makes for memorable photo ops — but at what point can this precious scenario turn awkward?
“Generally, a good age to stop bathing siblings of different genders [together] is 4 years old,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills child, parenting and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent and co-star of Sex Box on WE tv. “If one of the siblings under the age of 4 demonstrates heightened curiosity by reaching out and touching the penis, vagina, breasts or buttocks of his or her sibling, that is a direct timing cue for parents to bathe the children separately.”
This rule of thumb is also true for children bathing and showering with their different-sex parents, Walfish says — yet another practice that saves time and prevents your kids from pulling the good china out of your cabinet while you shower. If your children are interrogating you about their sibling's body parts and you've decided now is the time to give each of them his or her own bath, it’s important to handle the separation “matter-of-factly,” Walfish says, so that children aren't left feeling ashamed about their bodies or accidentally picking up on negative messages about sexual curiosity.
“Learning about their own bodies and sexuality is absolutely normal and a healthy part of child development,” Walfish says. “Toddlers as young as 24 months notice that Daddy has a penis, and boy children identify by looking at themselves, ‘I do, too!’; while female children see that they are missing something. Out of this the Freudian concept of ‘penis envy’ was born.”
Many children will transition out of wanting to bathe together before grade school and may even make that decision without their parents' interference, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. As soon as children become aware of their own gender identity, and the physiological and biological changes their body will undergo, co-bathing should cease, Hafeez says. But then great care should be taken to educate kids on their bodies in a way that won't conflict with their sibling relationships.
"This should be a natural transition and attention should not be drawn to it in a forced or unusual manner," Hafeez says. "This can disrupt sibling relationships as well as impact gender perception as well as of one's own body."
Laurie A. Gray, the founder and president of Socratic Parenting LLC and the author of A Simple Guide to Socratic Parenting, says she encourages families to focus on healthy bodies and healthy boundaries as soon as children begin to learn language.
“This includes using the correct names for all visible body parts, talking about what they’re used for and identifying which ones are ‘private,’” Gray says. ”Families have different comfort levels when it comes to nudity in the privacy of the home. Avoiding anything that might cultivate shame, parents need to respect their children’s body privacy once they are fully toilet trained and increasingly able to bathe themselves and attend to their own personal hygiene. This includes requiring/allowing/forbidding siblings to bathe together regardless of gender.”
Since children learn from their parents and the habits we model for them, it should come as no surprise that the way we regard and talk about our own bodies will have a direct impact on how we encourage them to think about their bodies at a time when their curiosity is peaking. Conversations about both boy and girl body parts should be honest, clear and free from judgment.
“Parents teach their kids about relationships between the sexes by the behavior they model, the respect for privacy they show their children and the way they respond to their children’s natural curiosity,” Gray says. “Parents who convey embarrassment at the human body and normal bodily functions, or use negative tools such as shame or guilt, are undermining the connection and communication that will be critical as their children move from childhood into puberty.”
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