By Erin Lewis
Are you getting mixed messages about how to address body image and food with your kids? If so, you’re not alone. There are so many conflicting messages telling parents to “do the right thing” that it’s hard to know what the right thing is. Should you buy nothing but bran, or allow kids some sweets? Do you throw out the scale, or teach toddlers to read labels?
This confusion is just one symptom of America’s issues with body image and food. In a 2003 Columbia University study, 40% of first- through fifth-grade girls surveyed reported they were trying to lose weight. These girls are ages six to eleven! More than half of teenage girls and a third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors like fasting, smoking, diet pills, vomiting, and abusing laxatives. Among boys, steroids have become a strategy for achieving the muscled body ideal and physical feats of professional sports stars they idolize.
What should parents do? How much can they do? Kids see or hear about 5,000 advertising messages each day, telling them “thin is in” while pushing the newest neon potato chip. School bullies make sure that kids suffer for being too fat, too skinny, too short, too curvy, too flat, too weak. While not all-powerful, parents still have a role to play. Parents’ own attitudes, words, and actions do influence the way their children see themselves.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to develop positive body image and healthy eating behaviors in their children:
• Build self-esteem! By showing and telling children out loud that you love them, you give them the confidence to stand up to the pressures of peers and the media. Develop a value system based on non-physical traits. Praise acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, bravery, and determination.
• Model good eating and exercise habits focused on the positive outcome of health, rather than on weight or beauty. For example, “Mommy exercises because it makes her feel good,” rather than “Mommy needs to go to the gym to lose 10 pounds.”
• Cook and eat together. Make healthy changes bit by bit. For example, start by replacing white bread with whole wheat, rather than trying to overhaul your entire repertoire of recipes.
• Exercise together as a family. Go for a hike on a nice day instead of sitting in front of the TV. Take a walk and meet the neighbors. Make these activities fun and social, rather than a chore-like obsession with weight.
• Don’t use food for reward or punishment. Encourage children to eat in response to hunger—not boredom or emotion.
• Encourage communication. Talk with children about what they see in the media and hear among their friends. Ask them questions about what they see. If they can articulate their feelings to a good listener, they are less likely to let their emotions trigger unhealthy habits with food.
• If you’re concerned about a child’s weight, talk to a health professional about safe ways to address the issue. Dieting very rarely works in the long term; 95% of all dieters regain their lost weight and more within 1 to 5 years. Some diets can even be dangerous.
Society can act like a funhouse mirror, distorting our image of ourselves. In order to support children, parents can make home a place of acceptance by nurturing healthy habits, self-esteem, and communication.
By Erin Lewis, Health Educator, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
Questions about parenting? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit http://www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.