Q&A: children of the opposite sex in restrooms

Nikki says:

"I have two boys, one is nearly 4 and the other just 14 months.  I’m wondering at what age they have to start using the men’s public restrooms or locker rooms and how you possibly get up the courage to send them in there alone. Luckily my husband is usually with us when we’re shopping or some other place that the older one might need to go to the bathroom and there aren’t family restrooms.  However, I take my son to his swim class at a time when Daddy can’t go and I can’t imagine sending him into the men’s locker room by himself any time soon!  We already get strange looks and both women and girls moving to other rows to change their clothes.  There is no sign posted about it but I thought I’d seen signs at other places about boys over 5 not welcome in the girls locker room.  I understand the reason for an age cutoff from a girl’s point of view, but the protective mommy point of view is interfering.  Any advice?  Can we only do swim classes when Daddy can go?  And only shop where there are family restrooms?  Help!"

I can't believe people are already giving you strange looks about a child who's still only 3! That just seems so extreme and nonsensical to me.

I don't really know what to do about bringing a child into a public restroom at the middle kid age. (For the record, I don't consider 3 or 4 to be an age at which anyone should be upset about seeing a kid of the opposite sex in a restroom. I do think a 12-year-old can probably go into a public restroom alone, depending on the situation. The years between 4 and 12 are what I mean by "middle kid age" in this case.) My older one is 5 1/2, and I have no plans to stop bringing him into public restrooms with me any time soon. He's allowed to go into the men's room by himself in certain places that are technically public but known to us (church, school, my office, etc.), but in truly public places there's just no way. If anyone gets upset about a 5-year-old in the ladies' room at an airport, I'll invite them to come up with a solution that keeps my son safe and still allows everyone to pee in a closed stall.

I do think locker rooms are a different story. People are out in the open, in full view of each other, changing clothes. So I can understand that people might feel uncomfortable being nude in front of a 6-year-old of the opposite sex (but a 3-year-old?!) or feel it's not right for a child to see an adult of the opposite sex with no clothes on (a bigger problem IMO). But it's the responsibility of the gym or pool to have a family changing room available for this situation. If they allow children to come and swim or exercise, they have to have a family changing room. If they don't, I wouldn't go there, and I'd let them know exactly why. It shouldn't be your responsibility to come up with a male to accompany your child to swim lessons (what about single moms, two-mom families, or families in which the dad has to work when swim lessons are happening?).

The best-case scenario for locker rooms, in my opinion, is 1) having a family changing room easily available, and 2) having the rules clearly posted about what ages of kids of the opposite sex are allowed in the locker rooms. This makes everything clear, so everyone knows what to do and no one feels insulted, offended, vulnerable, or embarrassed.

Experiences? Advice?