Powerful media messages about health and lifestyle are inundating young children – obesity, bulimia, healthy foods, junk foods, exercise, couch potatoes, preschool fashionistas, and kiddie-spas. Since when did fear and pressure lead to health and happiness? They don’t. Discussions with young children about food and fitness quickly turn into nagging. Good intentions are derailed into power struggles.
What is a diet to a young child? Researchers found that “diet” to a five year old means a time when you can’t eat. Sure, adults may feel that way but that’s after decades of negative conditioning. Children need positive messages about healthy food choices. Food is the fuel that helps their bodies grow, that gives them strength and energy.
Thinness – A Double Standard
A Florida State University study found that “body image stereotypes may begin in the highchair”. They found parents of three year old’s worried that little girls may not be “thin enough” while little boys were encouraged to eat more to become “big and strong”. Instead all children can learn the connection between hunger and food and to recognize the difference between not enough and too much.
The same study found that conflicts at mealtime were more often linked to future eating disorders than was picky eating or a refusal to eat. It isn’t easy to eliminate emotional struggles at mealtimes but it is necessary. The benefits of relaxed family mealtimes outweigh just about every other attempt to raising healthy, fit kids.
Adult worries about weight, exercise, and health are not appropriate topics for children. Worry creates fear and anxiety instead a sense of empowerment and self-control. If you are weight conscious, whether you need to lose a few pounds or not, your child will question their body image. If you are obsessive about exercise, even if you look great, your child focuses on the emotions instead of the positive action.
Children need a simple, direct message that will help them to feel secure in their bodies: your body is your friend – you take care of it and it takes care of you.
Help your child trust his body – his strength, resilience, ability to heal, agility, and what it means to feel good. Emphasize all the things your child’s body can do. Customize routines and activities around your child’s strengths. Running, walking, jumping, throwing, swimming, or dancing – every body likes to move.
Children learn body image not from a mirror on the wall. They learn it reflected in your eyes. Bravo to Playground Dad, Mike Johnson, for wanting to surround his daughters with positive images from the Now Foundation: Love Your Body Campaign! Show your child with words and actions that her body is a source of pride and joy. Each body is different. They can’t all do the same things – some are strong while others are flexible, some are tall while others are short. Teach your child to appreciate what is unique about her body instead of wishing for some false ideal. With a healthy environment and a healthy attitude, your child will grow with confidence in body and spirit.