Life & Culture

Modesty rules in a house with a pre-teen girl


I don’t mind the idea of being outnumbered. That is to say I’m fine with being a minority. I haven’t lived all my life as a member of the diaspora without reconciling myself to being the only Jew in the launderette. Yet when it comes to being the only male in a household of females I have become particularly conscious, I have recently realised, about being nude.

This became clear while talking with a mother from one family and a father from another in the park after school pick-up. It was warm enough for ice creams and our children who share a classroom were playing in dappled sunlight. The SATs exams had just finished and the talk was of relief that it was all over. Then, like an uninvited stranger who plonks himself down at the breakfast table, the question of how nude is too nude came up.

All three families have a ten-year-old daughter and I was saying that sometimes mine asserts the human right of privacy with the force of Clarence Darrow summing up against the death penalty. The previous weekend I had been condemned for failing to knock on the unlocked bathroom door before opening it. I quickly closed the millimetre gap that I so thoughtlessly had allowed to form between door and frame, partly to follow orders but mainly to protect myself from the merciless invective of pre-pre-teen judgment.

In the park the father and I were ruefully chuckling about this when the mother who is a clinician said research shows that negative attitudes about bodies can form in the minds of children if modesty is asserted too stringently by adults in the home.

I am wondering what damage have I done? Being the only male in a family of five, including my 89-year-old mother, who moved into our house in January, I do avoid being in a state of undress in front of anyone who is not my wife or our 15-month-old daughter.

I have developed the skills of a cat burglar when having to move dripping and towel-less through the house after a shower because those who were in the bathroom before me (the 89-year-old mother mercifully has her own bathroom) have not only each used at least two towels the size of a galleon sail but have removed them from the bathroom for reasons my imagination is too limited to conjure. Of course, I only discover this when reaching for the towel rail, which is as naked as me.

In the park the mother says that no such inhibitions exist in her house. Both she and her husband – a teacher, noch – have no need of the sonar instincts developed by me to judge whether my ten-year-old’s footsteps are approaching or receding from my bedroom door in order to leap into my trousers. They just get on with things. Blimey, said the other dad. I’m always fully dressed around my daughters. I once told my visiting brother-in-law to get back into his bedroom because he was walking around in shorts. At least I’m not that neurotic, I gratefully thought.

It is an odd thing, modesty. In our house our doors do close and the notion of knocking has been mentioned. But on the mad school mornings where something essential like a water bottle or homework can be left in any corner of any room, such rules have little effect. I suspect that if you decide it doesn’t much matter, nobody minds if you are naked when in your own bedroom. But once the decision has been made to keep the flesh unseen, blind panic takes hold at the prospect of those footsteps approaching while in (a completely reasonable) state of undress.

My guess is that deep down I have a fear that if I am seen by my eldest daughter while standing on one leg with the other half way through a pair of boxers, this can only result in a loss of parental authority. Children are like dogs. They can sense fear, which in my case once resulted in cries of almost vomit-inducing disgust when the ten-year-old saw me doing what every human does every morning – getting dressed. My fellow parents, the teacher and his wife, have no such qualms so can be as buff as a Lucian Freud painting in front of their children and receive no ridicule, and lose none of the respect in which they are held. Well, except perhaps a little by me. A corner of my brain now involuntarily pictures them naked every time we meet in the park.

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