Some of you may have read the article in Vogue by Dara-Lynn Weiss about putting her 7-year-old daughter on a diet after her doctor labeled her as obese, or you may just have heard of it. Many parents and experts have railed against the ways that Weiss used humiliation as a tool to control her daughter’s eating and shopping as a reward for losing weight.
It seems pretty obvious in reading the article that the author did some stupid things. But what is also clear is her confusion over the right way to deal with childhood weight issues. How many of us, as parents, have confronted an issue with our child and stood there in mental and emotional confusion, trying to figure out how to approach it? I know I have! Weight issues, especially if a parent herself has struggled with her weight, are emotionally loaded. When a parent who is aware of the health risks of obesity sees their child gaining weight, he or she worries about their health and about the emotional repercussions of being overweight. As most of us know, being called fat on the playground is the ultimate insult.
So how do we deal with weight issues in a healthy way? First of all, it’s really important to understand the Thin Ideal and how to handle that in the context of parenting. For specific information, please see my post on Fighting the Fear of Fat: Addressing the Thin Ideal with Young Children. Here are some other specific ways to help your child develop healthy attitudes about weight:
- Focus on health: Talk to your child about being able to do fun things with their body, like running, climbing, skating, bike riding. Tell them that you want to help them be able to move their body and do those fun things.
- Make exercise about having fun: Come on, nobody likes to exercise because they “should.” We start loving it when we realize how good it makes us feel, when we have fun with it. Get your child involved in activities that are fun, from children’s dance classes to sports to fitness groups, there are a lot of fun things to do to get your body moving. Ride bikes together, have jump rope contests to see who can jump the most times without stopping, have relay races, but make moving a fun thing to do.
- Know that Food is not the enemy: Our culture has so many strange messages about food. There’s fast, cheap, empty calorie food readily available on which we often feast, but then we won’t eat real butter or talk about “being good” by skipping the whole milk. We’ve got to find some balance in helping our kids learn to enjoy good, real foods while moderating the amounts they eat and making sure they get a good variety. Don’t use “good” and “bad” words to describe foods or your consumption of it. Instead, try talking about healthy choices. Some experts recommend helping kids see foods as green light, yellow light, and red light choices, which helps them learn which foods are good for filling up on and which may need to be enjoyed more occasionally. Whichever way you choose to talk about foods and help your child think about them, focus on health and feeding your body so it can be strong, not on fat and losing weight.
- Find a Community: And I don’t mean a community of people trying to lose weight, but one of people wanting live healthy lives. When you and your child are surrounded by other parents trying to make healthy, informed choices, it will be easier to do so yourself.
Parenting is hard sometimes, it can be confusing. Our own feelings and baggage come into the picture. Let’s try to take a step back and get the support we need to give our kids healthy guidance. And when you fail and let your emotions get the best of you, as we all do sometimes, pull yourself together, get the information you need and get back in there ready to help your child learn healthy lessons. You can do it, friend. Maybe not perfectly, but with love and care.