Friday, May 31, 2013

Cast from Eden

Guest Post by Lynn Shattuck, a writer in Portland, Maine
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We are Skyping with my parents when I realize it is time for the talk.

My mom and dad’s disembodied heads grin as my four-year-old disrobes. “Oh, Max, can you please keep your clothes on?” I beg. It is just after 1:00 PM and we have already had four costume changes. Lately Max demands to dress monochromatically. His favorite such outfit is his gray sweatpants and grey shirt, which my husband says makes him look like a 1950’s gym teacher. He just needs a whistle. “I want my grays!” are among the first words out of his mouth in the morning. But now, his grays lie on the floor near his bare ankles.

Max opens his mouth, cackles a bit and does a little jig in his Cars underwear. Except that he is removing that now, too. “Maxie! That’s private,” I say. As I say it, I realize I have never said that to him before. I have begged for privacy myself: Can I please just go to the bathroom without an audience, just this once? I have stopped him from barging in on unsuspecting friends as they use the potty: Maxie, Addie probably wants a little privacy. On the computer screen, my parents shake their heads, still smiling.
We have taken a very relaxed approach to nudity thus far. I am amazed and awed by the way that my children are strangers to shame. Having had a long history with negative body image and shame, I ache to preserve this feeling for them for as long as possible. Soon enough, societal pressures and rules will have their way with my babies and they will be exposed to our culture’s strange and conflicting ideas about bodies and sex.

My husband and I have tried hard to create a little slice of Eden in our home; we use the correct parlance for body parts. We don’t make a big deal if of our children see our naked bodies while we are bathing or getting dressed. Max recently asked me, “Mama? Why are your nimples so big? Are you gonna have another baby?”

But lately, Max has been removing his fig leaf a bit too often. His penis has joined us during playdates with friends, at an indoor play space, and recently, on our windowsill. He is four now. He can count and write his name. Soon he will be in grade school, and it seems unlikely that his kindergarten teacher will encourage the unleashing of genitals during show and tell.

“Bye Baba! Bye Papa!” Max bellows at the computer, his fingers rushing to push buttons to disconnect from Skype. “Bye Ma--!” they say, the screen going black.  

I take a deep breath and begin. “Maxie, I need to talk to you about something.”

“What?” He looks at me. I can tell by the light in his eyes that he thinks I am going to tell him something exciting. Yes, you can have that Easter candy for breakfast after all! We are going to watch Cars movies all day long, only taking short breaks to eat pepperoni and Easter candy!

“Sweetie, there’s nothing wrong with your penis,” I begin. Already I am saying it all wrong. The expectant light will now drain from his eyes forever, and all he will hear is “Wrong with your penis!” This will be the moment he will someday pinpoint in therapy, the beginning of his downward shame spiral.
“But it’s a private part of your body,” I stumble. “We just don’t show our privates to everybody, okay?”

 “Okay,” he says, prancing off to pound on his drum set.

 I head into the kitchen to scavenge for lunch for him and Violet. I am slicing a pear, gauging at the stiff core and seeds, when I spy something pink out of the bottom right corner of my eye.

“Maxie!” His underwear is pulled down just far enough that his penis rests atop Lighting McQueen’s bulging eyes. “Remember what we just talked about?” I ask.
“Pitano is a monster who puts his penis out!” he blurts.

What? I think.

“What?” I say.

“Pitano is a monster who puts his penis out!” he restates.
“Where did that come from?” I ask.
“I made it up!” I laugh, unable to stop myself. Who is Pitano? Does Max now think he’s a monster because he’s exposing himself? I imagine a future Max in a shadowy room, flogging himself like the tormented Silas from The Da Vinci Code. Bad Pitano! Bad Pitano! He will chant.

Max is trying so hard to understand the world. He asks things like, “Why does mans not care if they get their shoes wet?” and “Why isn’t Aunt Sue’s dad alive?” and “But where were Violet and I before we were in your belly?”

They are questions I mostly don’t know the answers to. And truthfully, I don’t really know why it’s not acceptable to display one’s genitals publicly. Perhaps our bodies and sex would seem like less of a big deal if we all were privy to one another’s privates. If, like Muppets with their uniquely colored heads and hair, our bodies, with all their quirks and variations, were exposed. We could go about our business, Muppet genitals flopping in the breeze.

The kids and I eat lunch, then head to the playground. Pitano doesn’t make any more appearances. After the kids are both in bed, I try to read, but something nags at me. Though it seems to not have sunk in, I hate that I severed a little slice of my son’s innocence today. I cast him from Eden, never to return. It aches, the same way it aches when I catch a glimpse of him at his daycare before he sees me. There is Max, out in the world.

Which is, of course, exactly why we have to teach him about privacy. A big part of our job as parents is to help our kids learn to be okay out in the world. Wearing clothes. Even if they’re monochromatic.

How do you teach your children about nudity and privacy? Or other societal rules that you don’t 100% buy in to or understand?


  1. Oh, Lynn. This post is so very relevant to me today. :)

  2. That's funny Jen! Is Pitano visiting your house as well? :)

  3. Love this. With these sorts of situations we have typically gone the route of "everyone in the world doesn't agree on everything, so there are some compromises most humans make in order to get along. for the most part. wearing clothes outside the house is one of these things." Or something like that... : )

    1. Thanks Jeru! Love your response to your kids-- it is neutral and simple, and not at all shaming.