NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A MOTHER BATHES WITH HER 3-YEAR OLD SON
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. I like to think I am not a prude yet it bothers me that my daughter-in-law bathes with her 3-year-old son. She started this practice when he was born and it has continued. She is in the bathtub with him and of course they are naked. My son states she did this with her older son (not by this marriage) until age 5 until my son put a stop to it.
If sex roles were reversed and it was my son in the bathtub with a 3-year-old daughter I feel this would be considered taboo.
A. Your daughter-in-law bathes with her 3-year-old son and it bothers you. But you don’t say exactly why. You say that it would be “taboo” for a father to do the same with his 3-year-old daughter. Is it the double standard that bothers you? Or that what your daughter-in-law is doing might be taboo, too? You may be worried about what bathing together means – about the mother, for the child and for their relationship. It is not unnatural for parents to bathe with their infants, and it may be easier to hold them and wash them when there are no worries about getting wet too. Getting out of the tub with a slippery baby in your arms is a challenge, and a hazard, unless there is a dry adult with a dry towel to whom the baby can be carefully handed. Splashing together, playing with rubber ducks and plastic tugboats, or just watching the water as it sloshes and gurgles down the drain are innocent ways to be together. What really matters is what is going on in the bathtub between the mother and child, and for each of them.
By the time a child is 3 or 4, he may be more interested in exploring the differences between his body and others. At that point, an adult’s nudity can be too much, too stimulating, and daunting to the child who is just becoming aware not only of gender differences and related anatomical ones, but also of how small and dependent he really is.
Bathing with a sibling who is no more than a few years older (with a parent nearby) allows a young child to learn about differences without the over-stimulation that adult nudity might entail. But stopping the bathing with the parent can be harder to do and harder for the child to understand once it has become important and compelling to him. This may be the case by 3.
For the mother, this might just be an innocent way of relaxing and being close. But it may be, as you seem to be suggesting, that she is driven by some deeper need that would interfere with her being able to watch her child’s cues, and respect them if this were too much for him.
What can you do? As a mother-in-law, not much – unless you have strong reason to believe that the mother is clearly causing the child harm. Then, it would be your duty to talk about this with your son. If he were unwilling to take action (as he did with the older child) then you could present your concerns to the child’s pediatrician for further investigation, and reporting to child protective authorities if warranted.
But if all you really know is that they are bathing together, then all you can do is gently test out your son’s position on this. More than that might make him think that you are trying to interfere with his relationship with his wife. This could easily backfire and push him away from you, without helping the child – if the child needs help. We doubt your daughter-in-law would be ready to hear you address this intimate issue directly. You might, though, have a general and sympathetic conversation about the challenges of letting a child grow up, and of keeping up as a parent with a child’s changing needs.
If you are asking us to decide if you are a “prude” or not, we can’t. We’re not sure what that word means to you, but think that you are entitled to decide for yourself about your level of comfort with family.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.