In the age of the obesity epidemic, more parents are concerned about health, wellness and…. WEIGHT. More and more, I’m asked “how can I help my son/daughter avoid the issues I had growing up?
The issues are pretty complex. For some they want to avoid having an obese child because they fear their child will get teased, ridiculed and treated poorly for their body. Or they don’t want their child to be associated with the “obesity crisis” as it comes with judgement from other parents, or facing internalized stigmas about fat bodies. Most have genuine health concerns (but this can also comes from the societal stigmas of being fat or perceived as unhealthy). Others want to avoid their child hating their own bodies. In our house the goal is focused on creating behaviors, role modeling body kindness, neutrality and demonstrating balance. (Please note, while that’s the goal we’re not perfect!)
The role of a parent is invaluable in helping model healthy behaviors for children. How do we help kids develop positive relationships with food, exercise and their bodies without doing harm in a world that values thinness?
- Do you verbally (even if not with poor intentions) discuss personal weight issues, how others have gained/lost weight, or as a whole are preoccupied with weight?
- How do you view and model food? Are you on a diet one day, then at the bottom of the kids snacks 2 days later? Do you talk about cheat meals, things being unhealthy because their high in calories? Do you closet binge eat or refuse to share food? Do you say things like “sugar is addictive” or “carbs are unhealthy” when describing certain foods?
- How do you talk about your body? Do you use “fat” negatively? Do you use negative words to motivate yourself or devalue your body? Do you force your body to be at a smaller size to maintain a certain perception of yourself?
- How about exercise? Do you get angry with your family when you cannot workout? Are you “earning your food” when you workout?
- Lastly, and possibly most important- how do you model the treatment, discussion and assumptions of others’ bodies. Do you gossip about people who have gained weight? Do you assume laziness, poor habits or health with larger bodied people? How do you discuss your children’s bodies?
These normalized behaviors can be extremely harmful to the black and white minds of children. At young ages they can begin associating good/bad foods with good/bad behaviors, they may begin associating having a smaller body as better than having a bigger body, they may perceive you would love them more if they are in a smaller body. They may begin dieting attempts or associate smaller bodies with “being healthy”.
What can you as a parent do to help?
- Remember little ears and little eyes are always there. They pick up on messages that are discreet. As you complain about how something isn’t compliant, or you’re “being bad” for eating, your kid is starting to equate good/bad with food. If you would cringe hearing your child say it, reconsider your language when discussing food and bodies.
- Consider your language about your own body. There are very few women who love their bodies constantly or are neutral about their bodies. That’s okay- But when we make negative comments about our bodies in front of our impressionable children we are setting them for the same mentality. This is also more common among women where we bond over our thunder thighs, hips that sink battle ships or whatever else. How your daughter views your relationship with your body will greatly impact how she views her own.
- Shut down body gossip. At your moms group and the conversation turns to how another mom “let herself go”? Change the conversation- one of my favorite things to do is to be clear if there is a genuine concern for someone’s wellness, what can we do to help her? Watch her kids? Drop off a latte, care package or send flowers? Bring her a meal? How can we alleviate HER burden and support her rather than gossip about her body? If there is a genuine concern there will be a way to positively support her rather than satisfying our urge to feel superior through gossip.
- Exercise in ways you enjoy, and find ways to be active as a family (hikes, bikes, walks, swims, playing together etc)
- If your kids use the word “fat” don’t freak out. Fat is a descriptor (like brunette or short) that has been warped into a negative way to describe bodies. Instead ask questions- what do you mean? What do you think of that? See what their perspective is on the word fat before you interject your own. It’s okay to say “yes, we all have fat on our bodies. Some have more than others, some have less. Every body is different!”
- In our house we have a saying: “all bodies are good bodies”. We do not place bodies on a hierarchy, we do not place value on thinness, athleticism, physical handicap or compliment weight loss, we encourage our children to understand God made our bodies many shapes, sizes, colors and gave us many different personalities, talents and strengths. It is up to us to care for the body we have been given through means we enjoy.
- Model balance, not restrictions. In a world that pushes fad diets and praises weight loss, remember you are responsible for providing balanced meals for your child. There is room for all foods (fruits, veggies, treats, dessert, snacks, proteins, candy and more!) when you are living a balanced life.
- Stop talking about your child’s body like they aren’t there. They hear it and absorb it. Talk to your pediatrician about your child’s health. People have been commenting on my daughters body since Day 1: “she’s so petite! she’s so tiny! she’ll love being tiny when she gets older! she’s so light! She’s such a pixie! She’s so lucky to be skinny!” while describing their own daughters as “pudgy, tanks, beasts, chubsters, little piggies etc” in negative ways, comparing bodies. I would always say “she’s exactly where she is supposed to be” and move on, but it became obvious even at young ages girls have perceived higher value as tiny and skinny. Simultaneously people using different dialog for my son- Beast, tank, strong are good things for him in our society that also is worshipful of muscular, athletic, large men. These types of dialogue are harmful to boys too.
- Chill out about sex, puberty, and bodily changes. Stay true to what your beliefs are, but also stop bringing the element of shame when it comes to body hair, sweating, poops, periods, having babies, weight gain during growth spurts, voice changing etc. This is NORMAL. We all went through it, give your kid a safe space to ask questions without fear of being teased.
- Most of all- be fun, be crazy, be silly. Show your kids what it’s like to laugh without inhibition or dance like no one’s watching! To savor the blessing of life we’ve been given.
Okay, that’s all fine and dandy and politically correct- how can we compliment people without damaging the children? I’m going to use some real life examples:
“Kayleen you are so fast! You beat me up the stairs again! Have you been practicing?”
“Maggie that medal is gorgeous- tell me more about why you love gymnastics”
“I saw you set a new distance record on Runkeeper today- how did that feel?”
“I can tell you’re really getting the hang of our new Zumba songs! Which one is your favorite?”
“Your squat form has improved so much since we started working together- do you have more mobility in everyday life too?”
Ultimately, these compliments are meant to acknowledge their awesomeness (because yes, hard work and consistency IS awesome) and also meant to give people a chance to talk about the aspects of what their doing that make them happy, feel good, and their personal experience. Take the time to see what makes someone tick.
Learn more about leading by example, body dialogue and encouraging balanced living using the resources below.
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