One day, one of my daughters (I’m not going to say which one) was examining herself in the mirror. She turned around to get a view of her cute little caboose and said, “Wow, my butt sure looks fat!” Now, if you have ever seen any of my girls (see picture above for two of them), you know that “fat” is not a word anyone would ever use to describe any part of them. In fact, we have to watch them pretty closely to make sure they keep their weight up. So where did she come up with the idea that her butt was fat?
My sister recently was telling me about some kids that she overheard talking about food. These kids were only six or seven years old at the oldest, but they were asking each other how many calories the food had and how much fat and carbs. Why in the world are 6 and 7-year-old kids worrying about calories, fat, and carbs?
What are our kids being taught about food, health, and exercise? Are they being taught that food is the enemy, that we have to have perfect bodies, and that we have to starve and torture ourselves to get there? How do we teach our kids the right way to think about their bodies?
Here are my 10 suggestions for teaching kids to have a good body image:
- No negative self-talk, EVER. Have you heard the phrase “Monkey see, monkey do?” My little monkeys sure love to copy everything I do, especially if it’s something I don’t want them to do (think curse words. Not that I would ever curse, Mom, never ever!). If I call myself fat, they will call themselves fat, and they will start to believe it.
- Be complimentary. Compliment all kinds of people, no matter what size and shape they are. Is there someone you know who would be considered “fat,” and yet is beautiful? Say so! Let your kids see you recognizing beauty in all shapes and sizes, and they will learn to do the same.
- Be a good example. More monkey see, monkey do here. I try to exercise very early in the morning so my sweet little girls don’t try to “help” me, but they will quite often wake up and wander downstairs when I’m just about done. Because of this, they see me doing it every day, and they now believe that exercise is fun. Quite often my 3-year-old will pull out my yoga mat, put in one of my exercise DVDs, and spend a few minutes “getting so STROOOONNGGG, mom!!!” We also talk about how running around outside playing, going to the park and playing on the playground, or even chasing each other around and having tickle fights is also good exercise, and that our bodies are meant to move!
- Make the goal healthy, not skinny. The desire to be skinny is pure vanity. Everyone wants to look good in those skinny jeans, right? However, while I’ll freely admit that I can be vain and really enjoy being skinny for that reason (which is exactly why I wore these red skinnies once upon a time), my real goal is to keep feeling this wonderfully and healthy, and I make sure that what my girls see is my focus on health and nutrition.
- Let them help you cook. There are so, so many reasons to have kids help you cook. First, they are more likely to eat food they have helped prepare themselves. Second, how else are they going to learn how to make healthy meals? Many hands make light work, and once you have trained your sous chefs well, that takes a load off of you, and can even give you a day off from making dinner every once in a while! Third, the one I love the most, there is no better time to talk to your kids about what exactly is in their food. We have discussions all the time about the nutritional value of food, about why the pizza we make at home is better for our bodies than the kind we can have delivered, why we need to have vegetables at every meal, and that sugary treats are fine occasionally but are bad for our bodies if we eat them every day. I want them to not just eat what is put in front of them, but to understand why we make the food choices we do. We have these adorable plates, and they help them learn about the good in food, too!
- Celebrate the good. If they see you standing on the scale and cursing (no, Mom, I really don’t curse!), they will think that weight is a bad thing. When I stand on the scale I make sure my girls only ever see me smile, even if the pizza delivery I ate Friday night is staring back at me in numbers I don’t like. When they stand on the scale, we clap and happy dance and we celebrate their growth and how well they are doing. Even when I don’t like my own scale numbers, I celebrate that I’m nowhere close to where I was and that I know exactly how to nourish my body to keep it healthy. Make sure to celebrate non-scale victories, too, there is so much to celebrate when it comes to these miraculous bodies we have!
- Size is not identity. Our size is always a part of us, but it is not who we are. Who we are is the feisty redhead who loves to climb and jump and run, who gives the best hugs, and crinkles her nose when she smiles. Or maybe who we are is the dramatic girl who can’t get enough imaginative play, loves strawberries more than life, and is never happier than when hanging around home playing with family and friends. What if who you are is the horse loving girl who has always been so good with animals, any kind of animal, and who is happy no matter what life throws her way. Help your kids learn to define themselves outside of size and instead focus on the amazing beings living inside those bodies.
- Teach them to listen to their bodies. Forcing kids to clear their plates destroys their ability to learn to listen to their own bodies. Yes, I totally know there are times that kids take half a bite and say they are done, and you know they’ll be whining for food five minutes later. It is better to allow them to learn what it feels like to be hungry than to force them to eat when they are full. Yes, I sometimes encourage a few more bites, but mostly I ask them to stop and feel their bellies and feel if they are full or not. It has taken time, but my kids have learned exactly how much they need to eat to be satisfied. There are many other ways they can learn to listen to their own bodies, and it is important to teach them to respect those signals.
- Watch your language! Use words like “nourish,” “healthy,” “strong,” and “happy.” Banish words like, “healthy (said as if it were a curse word [nope, I still don’t ever curse]),” “fat,” “lose weight,” “be skinny,” etc.
- Get the junk out of your home. And I’m not talking junk food here, although of course, I recommend getting rid of that too. Do you have stacks of magazines with photoshopped images of “perfect” bodies all over your house? Take a look at your exercise DVDs. Are they promoting health, or promoting a skinny, hot, “bikini body?” What are you unknowingly advertising in your very own home?
You know, looking at this list, I see something I didn’t notice before. Basically, teaching kids good body images comes down to being kind. When you are kind to yourself by speaking nicely about yourself, feeding yourself nourishing food, and moving your body every day, and then you are also kind and complimentary to other people, your own kids included; your kids learn from that. So let’s all be kinder, to ourselves and to others. It will result not just in improved body image, but will help all aspects of our lives!
Now tell me about your own kids. What do you do to help your kids to have a good body image?