Behavior: Ask the Experts: TOO OLD TO SHOWER TOGETHER?

February 1, 2005

The father of two siblings in my practice—a 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy—is upset by the fact that their mother (from whom he is divorced) showers with the two children together. At what age is it no longer appropriate for a parent to shower with a child of the opposite sex, and for two opposite-sex siblings to shower or bathe together?

Q. The father of two siblings in my practice-a 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy-is upset by the fact that their mother (from whom he is divorced) showers with the two children together.

Benjamin Rosenblum, MD Marlton, N.J.

A. There is no simple answer to this question-no single, developmentally appropriate age. In general, I would say that by the age of 8 or 9 years-10 at the latest-most children have developed enough of a sense of personal boundaries and body space that they no longer want to shower with a parent or bathe with a sibling of the opposite sex. But Dr. Rosenblum's query raises broader issues.

A parallel discussion with the mother might touch not only on the divorce but also on whether she sees the shower as a "social" activity-which may be a holdover from times when the children were younger. Of equal importance is getting a sense from the children of how they feel about showering together. Are they embarrassed? Is it a matter of course? Do they laugh about it with their friends? Most children their age cannot directly express their feelings about something they are uncomfortable with, but their responses could provide an indication of when and how the pediatrician might assist this family.

I would see this situation as a time to help both parents encourage the children to further develop personal boundaries and respect for each member of the family-and for each parent to do the same. By 5 or 6 years, most children are reluctant to "report" on a parent; asking them to do so shows a lack of respect for them as individuals. The need for such respect extends to activities such as showering together. Most 7- and 8-year-olds are beginning to develop a sense of social modesty and body space. Parents need to encourage siblings to respect this in each other. It's not uncommon for a child to be uncomfortable with bathroom and shower activities in the presence of others but to be afraid to say so. Siblings at this age cannot be expected to recognize signals on their own. Even if they do, their response may be to tease or harass their brother or sister.

Likewise, adults have their own boundaries and expectations for privacy-whether that means sleeping in their bed without children or believing that their actions, as long as they are not illegal or abusive, will not be subject to judgments by an ex-spouse that are then voiced to their children. Teaching these lessons when a child is 6 to 8 years old is much more effective than trying, years later, to suddenly make an adolescent see the virtues of respect and tolerance.

William Sammons, MD Framingham, Mass.

DR. SAMMONS is in private practice and takes a special interest in the children of divorce. He is coauthor, with Jenny Lewis, MD, of Don't Divorce Your Children. He is board-certified in developmental and behavioral pediatrics.