Being a mother of 3 girls, discussions about body image have been a recurring theme in our home for almost as long as my children have been able to speak. As children get older, they become more aware of their bodies, how they are changing, and what they like and do not like about their physical appearance.
In talking with friends and clients, I have come to learn that our children are more critical of themselves than ever before. And they are starting to talk about their bodies at a much younger age. And not necessarily in a positive light. This is particularly true for girls, who on average reach puberty earlier than their male classmates and whose bodies start to change that much younger.
I often hear, either directly from my own children or overhearing conversations with their friends that they wish they were not so chubby so they can wear that style shirt or comments like, “That girl is so lucky that she can wear a smaller size. I wish I can wear that size…”
These comments, in and of themselves, are not harmful. But they do cause reason for concern. The intentions behind them, or understanding the thought processes in our children’s’ minds before making these comments, can be cause for worry.
So how can parents discuss the topic of body image in a positive way and not focus so much on weight and size?
Like most other children, mine enjoy their sweets and love to eat ‘junk’. They ask for it daily, and almost feel as if receiving a treat is an entitlement instead of a reward. Although we try to limit the indulgence in unhealthy food as much as possible, rather than deprive our children, as parents I feel it is more our job to teach them proper eating habits and exercise regimens.
Children should never be deprived of sweets. In fact, I think children should never be deprived of anything. All in moderation, of course. Without the proper exposure and opportunity to be faced with temptation, children cannot learn to regulate their own urges, learn proper impulse control, and in general feel like they are in control of their own bodies.
Children need to be taught the proper tools to make informed decisions and learn that there are consequences to the decisions that they make, on their bodies, but also on their overall health. Let’s face it, whether it’s school snacks, play dates or birthday parties, our children are sharing food, trading food, and are not always in sight of mom or dad to tell them when to stop eating chips by the fistful.
Instead of parents trying to micro-manage everything their child eats, that emotional energy should be focused on speaking to our children about what makes food healthy, and similarly, what makes food unhealthy, and the consequences of eating too much food of any kind in excess.
In our home, we never use the words ‘diet’, ‘fat’ or ‘heavy’. Instead, we try to focus on being healthy and fit. When our children ask why they need to exercise, we elaborate on the outcome we as their parents know they can achieve; we want them to be fit and have a healthy heart. We elaborate that eating healthy foods rich in nutrients and drinking lots of water helps keep their skin, bones and muscles healthy and strong.
Most children are very visual, and creating a chart of healthier foods vs. foods that are not as healthy, can help children learn about nutrition on their own and teach them how to make good decisions.
So as parents, when it comes to teaching our children about nutrition and healthy body image it is our job to plant the seed, and nurture them. Like every other skill we wish for them to acquire, parents need to teach the best they can, model by example and hope that somewhere along the way the proper messages are getting through.
Ultimately, like with everything else, it is the child’s will, education, and confidence in their own ability to make decisions, which will benefit them as they too become adults. A lot of praying and hoping from mom and dad does not hurt either.
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