Parents are bombarded by messages about our children's weight. "Don't let them be fat." "Make them exercise." "Don't ruin their self-esteem!" "Don't give them an eating disorder!"
Add to that each adult's own relationship to eating and exercise. A person's upbringing, body image, health and experiences all shape their own eating and weight "issues" or ideas.
Is it any wonder many parents choose not to discuss weight with their kids at all? And, they're right!
Don't talk about weight.
- Keep the focus on growth. Young kids are proud of every pound they gain, as it means they're getting bigger! Is there anything more exciting? Talk to kids about what we can do to "grow healthy!"
- Be intentional with words. At the doctor's office, ask about your child's BMI, about his nutrition, about her fitness. This will teach your kids that they have control over the way they grow, and to be healthy on purpose.
- Stop talking about your own weight. Even when talking to other adults, try to get words like fat, and diet, and pounds, out of your vocabulary. Children pick up very quickly the shame and frustration and powerlessness that their parents feel and start to feel that way themselves.
Talk about healthy choices!
- Follow the healthy plate. Put this poster in your kitchen, and engage kids to plan healthy meals and snacks. Asking kids (even tweens) to help the family eat healthier starts great discussions and teaches lifelong skills. Half your plate filled with vegetables and a fruit, one quarter with starch and one quarter with protein is a great way to grow healthy on purpose!
- Encourage taking some minutes before your seconds. To avoid eating when not hungry, follow these simple suggestions for everyone in the family. Don't leave bowls of food on the table keep them on the counter. Finish everything you have (including the vegetable) before you get seconds on anything. Take a ten minute rest at the table before getting those seconds remind your kids, "You might be more full than you think!"
- Drink to your health. Since sweet drinks are nutritionally equivalent to dessert, that means that juice, chocolate milk and soda (which should be completely avoided until at least age 12) are actually dessert! Water is what we need to grow healthy. Ask your child if they prefer it hot, warm or cold, in a special cup or cool bottle, with a crazy straw, iced or "straight up."
- Decide on your favorite sweet. Will it be a sweet drink? Dessert or a junk food snack? Depending on your child's nutritional status, you may allow one sweet a day, or only once or twice a week. Talk about this as a special treat and give your kids the decision about what and when, while you decide how much and how often. When talking to teens (who make most of these decisions on their own), ask what decisions they are making and why, instead of trying to control their choices.
Talk about strength and fitness!
- Make your kids fitness experts. Ask your kids to make a huge list of all the things they can or want to learn to do to be stronger and more fit. Research together how much exercise a person their age needs a day. Ask them what they'll be doing that day for fitness.
- Use exercise to earn screen time. Most kids love some screens. So make a 2:1 ratio for active time to sitting down time.
- Involve your kids in your fitness time. Most kids and even teens want their parents' undivided attention. Leave the phones at home and use that one-on-one time to build fitness and relationships.
Talk about beauty and health!
- Listen to what your kids are asking. All kids wonder about their bodies, and how they compare to others. Mostly they are asking "Am I OK? Do you like me? Will other people like me?" Try to answer the hidden questions.
- Bring it back to health. If your child is discouraged by her body or his weight, keep bringing the conversation back to health. What would she like to do to be more healthy? What would make him feel better and what can you do to help him accomplish that goal in a healthy way?
- Don't forget the love. Reassurance matters. Tell your child what you admire about her. Remind him of the beauty you see. Even if your child dismisses your opinions, your message is getting through!
Talking to kids about a healthy weight means thinking about so many different aspects of health. The great news is, you are thinking about all of these things already. Just bring your kids into the conversation!
About Deborah Gilboa, MD (Dr. G)
Dr. G is a board certified Family Physician and mother of four. Founder of AskDoctorG.com, a resource for parents and educators with child behavior questions, Dr. G leads seminars all around the country to empower parents to raise children they can respect and admire. You can find her with questions on her site, interact with her on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus. Bring Dr. G to your business, community or faith-based organization for a powerful event that will help parents Get the Behavior You Want... Without Being a Parent You Hate!