The Changing Room Conundrum

swimming pool

Flea loves to swim. Loves it.

So every week, she has swimming lessons at our local YMCA pool, and has done for quite some years.

It’s fun, but chaotic.

The YMCA in our town is one of the best places to get lessons – so it’s always busy. There are two teachers, each teaching half a dozen kids at a time, and lessons every 30 minutes between 4 and 7pm most days.

You can imagine the scene. There are always a couple of dozen kids and assorted parents in the changing rooms, which date from the 1960s. There are a handful of tiny cubicles and some positively Victorian showers, but most of the parents get their kids ready in a communal changing area because it requires significantly less contortion than trying to get both of you into a cubicle without someone being elbowed in the face. It’s a chaotic scene of towels, pushchairs, hair bobbles and discarded uniforms.

During lessons, the pool is still open to the public and a few of the Mums – myself included – take the opportunity to go for a swim while the kids are in their lesson. It’s got to be better than sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair slowly melting from the heat and humidity.

It’s not the swishest of pools, and the private gym we go to during the rest of the week is substantially better laid out, with big family changing rooms and an entirely separate adults’ changing suite and pool, but the YMCA is a great community resource and Flea’s swimming teacher is brilliant. We love going there.

But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that one of the Mums brings her son into the female changing rooms with her. There’s nothing unusual in that when a boy is two, three, four years old. But this kid is nine. And bearing any disability that I don’t know about, I can’t help but feel it’s skirting on the edge of being inappropriate. I don’t think a boy of nine has any business getting changed in a female communal changing room when there’s a perfectly good male changing room next door.

Maybe it’s just me? I do understand that it can be worrying to let children out of your sight. Truly, I do. I’m as neurotic as the next woman. But I also believe it’s neglecting your duty as a parent just as much if your child isn’t on a path to independence – and that allowing kids to navigate potentially worrying but probably safe situations on their own is a big part of that.

I spoke with Flea’s Dad about this – occasionally if I’m working, he takes Flea to her swimming lesson and since he hates to swim, he needs to decide what to do. When Flea was five or six, he took her into the male changing rooms and changed her there. But since she turned seven, he escorts her to the door of the girls’ changing rooms, then waits for her at the poolside exit. That seems reasonable to me – there are plenty of other adults and kids around if Flea did need help, and in the event of a crisis, she knows how to shout – and he’s just seconds away.

At almost nine, Flea would be mortified not to be allowed to change herself unsupervised, I think. And she enjoys being allowed these little moments of independence – whether it’s popping into the local Co-Op and buying us a loaf of bread while I wait in the car, or walking to the local park with a friend while I’m lurking, unsubtly, two minutes behind.

The truth is, whether you’re a single parent or not, these issues are going to come up with children in public places. And as Anya discusses over on her blog, it’s a really tricky balance to get right. We all want to keep our children safe – but we’re equally keen not to instil suspicion or fear into their daily lives unnecessarily.

Perhaps I’m lucky (or just naive) that I don’t worry a great deal about predators and have tended to let Flea use public bathrooms unsupervised for several years. Having said that, I did once get shouted at by a waiter in a restaurant when I let Flea go to the loo during dinner without being accompanied. My view was that I could see the bathroom door from where I was sitting, and Flea was old enough to use the bathroom and wash her hands without me – his view was that I might as well have thrown her into a pool of crocodiles for all the parenting I was doing.

What do you think – do you let your primary school aged kids use public facilities unsupervised? And what sort of things do you think about when weighing up what’s safe versus what isn’t?

16 thoughts on “The Changing Room Conundrum”

  1. I had no choice with my son, I had to let him use the public facilities unsupervised after a certain age because his dad wasn’t always with us and at the age of 8 or so I think it’s inappropriate to take him into the female public facilities, not only out of respect for the females in there but even for him. He would have been so embarrassed and totally mortified! I wouldn’t want a boy of that age in the public change rooms when my nine year old daughter is changing! So out of necessity, you get used to it. I always stayed near the door and listened for any screams or what nots, so I felt safe letting him go in. Even though we want to protect them forever, we are doing them no favours by navigating their every move. They need to be faced with situations where they have to work out what needs to be done. It’s part of growing up. If we don’t give them some independence, we will raise clueless kids who can’t think for themselves.

    1. Yes, I’m much the same – I’d stay near the door, or where I can see it – but you do need to let them get used to being on their own and working out (hopefully) little problems as they arise.

  2. As you know my boys are eight and nine and are happy to change on their own. They are just starting to notice and understand the difference between girls and boys. I don’t think that there is anything untoward, but I do want my boys to understand what is and isn’t appropriate. Until senior school the boys and girls get changed in the same room for PE at school, although granted they do keep their pants on (well I hope they do)!

    I do not worry about sexual preditors, I know that there are just as many as when I was younger and it is awareness that has increased.

    My lads have been going to the mens loos for a couple of years on their own and that is fine by me too.

    I am growing men, not just raising boys

    1. Yes, I think it’s more about understanding what’s appropriate – and in this instance the changing room is used by girls and women, and it feels odd to me. Maybe that’s just my inhibitions talking!

  3. It’s a toughy. We are just getting to this stage and I will need to start letting go. Our local pool says under 8s are allowed in opposite sex changing rooms, but older children need to go on their own. If I am getting changed as well, there will be a few doors in between us so I wouldn’t hear if there was a problem. That said, a number of times I’ve come across clueless men in the ladies changing rooms as the poor dears seem to find the signage confusing, or at least that’s their story.

  4. I commnted on Anya’s post today and said exactly this – we have older boys in our communal changing rooms, and I do not like the way they stare as my daughter changes. It makes her uncomfortable too, at nearly 10. It’s natural, so I don’t blame the boys, but parents need to let their children do what is appropriate. It’s a pool changing room, not a long walk home at night through a dodgy area.

    And whilst we’re on the subject, what’s with primary schools making children get changed for PE in their classrooms at the age of 11, when the girls bodies are developing, and the boys are interested. This happens in year 6 in so many schools, and it’s utterly wrong.

    1. I agree – at almost 10, children should be in single sex changing rooms, and I know some pools have policies on this, it’s a shame our YMCA doesn’t.

  5. I didn’t know you’d written this or would have commented before! Firstly, my post was about letting (or not) my sons – and specifically my 5yo – into Gents public toilets alone. I would NEVER allow them in a female communal changing room for everyone’s sakes – my 9yo would be mortified and so would the the women and any young girls. I no longer change in front of him myself and he likes his own privacy too, so when we go swimming he has his own cubicle, while the 5yo and I elbow each other in the face. The main reason I am ultra careful about them going into the Gents loos (or not) unaccompanied is because we live on the south coast where all the known offenders are re-housed when they come out of prison and I have known of a boy who was attacked in Brighton at 15. As I said in my post, it’s us who. therefore, become kind of imprisoned.

      1. I was pondering this post when I saw yours, which I thought was really interesting – I do still tend to think that even in a community where offenders are re-homed, the chances of encountering an offender who is likely to do something to a stranger, in a specific toilet, at a specific moment in time, are very low – but parenting isn’t always about rationality – because even a tiny risk of something terrible happening is unacceptable, and I’m very much the same way on other issues.

  6. My daughter’s swimming classes have a published policy – children over 8 need to use their own gender changing rooms, and that feels right to me. I also allow my six and a half year old to use public toilets on her own, so I’m clearly a terrible mother!

  7. It’s a tricky one because a lot depends upon how much you trust your own child as much as how much how trust other people. But I think from 7 we should be expecting our children to manage simple things like getting changed after swimming or going to the loos themselves. Particularly if they otherwise have to use the opposite gender spaces.

    Some parents are very cautious about allowing their children independence and prefer to sit over them while they change even when they are much older. They are capable of changing after PE even in Reception class, it’s not that different really is it?

    1. That was my theory – at six, she was changing and dressing and using the bathroom independently at school, so why not when she’s with me?

  8. Interesting – our pool only has mixed changing (with quite a number of individual cubicles), so nothing can be done about that, but as a single mother of a now 7 yr old boy, I do have the public loo issue. I go with the – if we are in a restaurant, around our town, somewhere he knows, then he goes into the gents on his own, if we are in Euston station (or other similarly large places!) which involves going down staircases and into huge loo blocks then for now I continue dragging him with me to the Ladies. He is small for his age, so for now I get away with it.

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