Teaching Modesty Without Shame: The Social Contract

Photo credit: Sarah Potter Photography. Baby credit: My uterus.

We all love a nakey baby, don't we? Cute little round, doughy tush... thigh creases for days... rolls upon rolls of delicious back fat... and don't get me started on soft, round, squishy tummies (theirs, not mine)! Truly, there is nothing more delightful than a naked baby, all softness, warmth, and oxytocin-promoting cuddles. Nope. Nothing better. Naked babies are where it's at.

Unless we're talking about naked toddlers. Because those are lovely, too. Their little top-heavy, earnest frames crowned with adorable bobble heads and led by proud, prominent bellies that their skinny, bowed legs just barely support. "How do you manage to move in such a physically improbable body?" I want to ask, but am generally too delighted by the implausibility of their forward-thrust torso and disproportionately tiny limbs to manage anything but giggles. Yes. Yes, I've decided. Naked toddlers are the bees' dimpled knees.

And then there are naked kids, and that's where things get tricky. Yes, we all love a naked baby. Yes, we all understand and appreciate a naked toddler. But the indiscriminate nudity of older children - of full-on kids - gets uncomfortable. It's at this point - when your kid flashing the assembled families at the wading pool, when your kid practicing somersaults sans clothes after bathtime, when your kid taking an emergency leak behind the bushes at the bathroomless park becomes awkward rather than cute - that you have to have the talk about basic modesty.

Now, we obviously want to tell our kids to keep their bodies appropriately covered without instilling shame. Yes, kids, we want you to cover your genitals in public. Sometimes even in private! No, kids, we don't want it to be because your body is dirty, bad, or wrong. Teaching this lesson without accidentally imparting such erroneous information can be challenging. And that's where the social contract comes in.

Ha! Rousseau thought he was a fancypants, intellectual philosopher, when really he's the guy I invoke when I say things like "FOR THE LOVE OF THE SOCIAL CONTRACT, PUT YOUR VULVA AWAY!" (Image Source)

For those of you who slept through your undergrad philosophy courses, the social contract is basically the agreement of the masses to relinquish some personal freedoms in exchange for a ruling party's protection and recognition of other freedoms. It is essentially this: "Put some shorts on so the neighbors don't have to see your anus, and I'll let you play outside." (Thanks, Rousseau! Always thinking about the regulation of our anus visibility for the greater good, that one!)

Now, if your child asks, astutely, "What's wrong with the neighbors seeing my anus when you insist that my body is beautiful, mine, something to be proud of, etc.?" you have an easy answer in explaining the social contract. Rather than responding with "no one wants to see that," which makes your child's body sound like something to be ashamed of or "because I said so," which just inspires rebellion against arbitrary authority, you can explain the social contract. Don't go reading the above definition out loud, though. You've got to put it in kid-terms. My explanation of the social contract to my girls goes something like this:

"We wear clothes that cover our swimsuit area when we're in public because of the social contract. That means that, by and large, everyone has agreed together to cover their swimsuit areas in public. Going along with the social contract makes it easier to be in public, get along with people, and keep from hurting others' feelings."

This is the same basic speech I give when explaining the reasoning behind manners, not swearing in mixed company, being quiet in the library, and staying seated at a restaurant. We do these things because we have agreed to them to help make getting along with others easier, not because not doing them is inherently terrible. It's not your publicly exposed anus that's problematic in itself; it's the stigma and social difficulty (and public indecency charge if you're an adult) of your publicly exposed anus that makes keeping pants on worthwhile.

See? No shame. Just an acknowledgment that there are rules by which we agree to behave when we live in a civilized society. Just the social contract at work.

Handily, it is through the acknowledgment of and general respect for the social contract that we can also subvert it and teach our children to do so, as well. When I was nursing wantonly, indiscriminately, and clumsily all through my younger child's infancy, my older Smartling was well aware of the social contract's general dictate that women keep their tops on. When she asked me why I was allowed to unbutton my shirt and whip out a naked breast in public, it was easy to explain that, since feeding her sister was more important than adhering to the social contract, I was going to deviate from it and be fleetingly bare-breasted in public. This is handy for otherwise questioning and abandoning social norms that have outlived their presumed utility, such as willingly violating dress codes both in favor of modesty or propriety (Hi, burkinis! Hi, hijabs!) or to defy sexist clothing regulations (Hi, leggings! Hi, tank tops!). You can even use it to dismantle in kid-friendly terms the patriarchal policing of women's and girls' breast coverage when your kid asks why boys can go topless at the beach but girls can't. After all, just because we mostly follow the social contract's dictates doesn't mean we can't criticize and occasionally refuse them, too.

Locating the discussion of what is and isn't appropriate publicly within the existence of a social contract provides enough distance from the practice of modesty to make space for defying it as well as participating in it without invoking body shame. It's a handy little means of appreciating your child's physical autonomy while also getting them dressed and out the door in the morning. Plus, your kids will sound so smart when they go around talking about the social contract, and all your friends and neighbors will praise your superior parenting methods while also reveling in the exposed-anuslessness of your family's company! Win-win, I say. Win-win.

I welcome your comments on this method or recommendations on any other method you have of teaching your kids to get dressed without stigmatize their nudity. Share away, Smarties! And, as you yank up your kids' Underoos in the morning, give a silent acknowledgment of gratitude to Rousseau. It might not be an intended consequence of his work, but it's a good one.