Q: I was quite surprised to find my 9-year-old son playing outside with his friends while wearing sweat pants but no underwear. I don't know where he got the idea, because he's always worn underwear, even under his pajamas. I told him he had to come into the house until he put some on. My husband thinks I overreacted. What do you think?
A: Most children your son's age would be embarrassed about their underwear, or lack thereof, coming to the attention of even a few friends. Your son might also be wondering if there are hidden messages in your obvious concern about keeping his "private parts" under double cover.
If, in your parenting style, you have put a high priority on extreme modesty, this may have been a way for your son to be a bit daring. A little exploration of the limits of house rules is quite normal and healthy.
We suspect, however, his actions were even more innocent this time. In all probability he was just in a hurry to get out to play and didn't want to bother with additional dressing.
As far as we know, underwear has nothing to do with health or with the developmental needs of the child. It seems, rather, to be a cultural convention, perhaps having more to do with laundry concerns and adults' ideas about sex than anything else. Viewing the issue in that context may help you decide how much to monitor your son's underwear habits.
Dr. Wilson is director of pediatric primary care of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.