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Parenting Dilemma: Kids and Weight

Some of us have kids who seem to naturally flock to sports and physical activity. And while they might not resist every food temptation typical for their age group, they somehow pull together a pretty solid diet. Still others of us have children who aren’t necessarily the best eaters or exercisers but who seem (for now) more or less immune to the weight gain that might inspire better habits [1]. Finally, some of us parent kids who truly struggle with weight. And even while poor food choices and low activity levels clearly contribute to most children’s problems, occasionally there are kids who, despite good habits, continue the battle into adulthood.

For our part, as parents, we see both sides. We worry for our kids’ health. We hope for their social acceptance even as we encourage them not to depend on it. We want them to take good care of their bodies, enjoy the physical energy and potential of youth. We want them to be and feel their best. Meanwhile, we want them to know they’re amazing, beautiful and beloved just the way they are. We know what we want to do, how we want them to feel, but then there’s the sticky reality of it. What’s the right message exactly? How do we figure the perfect balance in communicating and cultivating all our good intentions for our kids’ health?

A New York Times article [2], “Parenting and Food: Eat Your Peas. Or Don’t. Whatever.”, picks up this dicey parenting issue. It’s a discussion of the blurry lines between how to foster healthy habits without inhibiting a healthy self-concept. As any parent (or person who has any recollection of the awkward adolescent years) knows, taking on this issue can involve navigating an emotional mine field. One wrong move, and you face an explosion of tempers, guilt, and other psychological shrapnel. The long-term stakes, we learn, are high. Research has shown that fathers’ communication about and even “attention to” their daughters’ weight can raise their “risk of eating disorders.” Children of parents who promoted dieting “were significantly more likely to remain overweight than those whose parents didn’t.”

Frank Bruni, the author of both the Times article and recent memoir Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, illustrates the precarious landscape with stories of hesitant parents attempting their best acrobatic acts. He gives us stories of parents who’ve diligently striven for “balanced meals and restrained portions.” On the other hand, Bruni gives us another angle of parental concern, a resistance to what some parents see as a tendency toward broader deprivation – a missing the forest through the trees if you will. As one mother put it, she wants to instill healthy habits but not deny her daughter the basic “psychological pleasures that come from sitting at a table and enjoying a meal.”

Bruni’s article ends by rounding up several points of expert consensus. Most are basic and commonsensical. First, of course, he says parents should model healthy eating and exercise habits. It’s the old “Do what I do, not what I say” principle. Other effectual strategies include stocking the house with healthy options and planning dinners with homemade fare. Finally, he says with a personal note, it’s important to find a substitute “activity” that can provide a “similar emotional gratification” children may have previously associated with food.

I found Bruni’s article engaging, relevant and thought-provoking. It got the Worker Bees and I talking. We had a slew of questions but few clear answers. (Isn’t that always the case in parenting though?) What do kids need and want to hear? How do parents inspire the best balance between emotional self-acceptance and physical self-investment? How much should we as parents demonstrate and divulge of our own struggles exactly?

I thought I’d take up the conversation here with you all. I’ll throw out a few thoughts, and I hope you’ll add yours to the discussion.

Clean up the family diet and environment.

A physiological point first… Parents want to help their kids make good food choices [3] and get plenty of physical activity. However, there’s another often missed piece to the puzzle. The increasing presence of toxins [4] in our everyday environment and food supply [5] can contribute to a myriad of health problems, including weight issues. Toxins, particularly in children, can disrupt basic hormonal balance. This disturbance can throw off the metabolic processes responsible for energy conversion and, particularly in tandem with a poor diet, boost fat storage [6]. It’s a good excuse for explaining why a “good diet” entails more than a menu: it means fostering an educated and thoughtful mindset toward eating and health.

Be honest (first with yourself) about your relationship with food and/or your physical self-image.

Perhaps having lived a similar experience, we can identify on some level with our kids. If we were overweight once upon a time, we can understand what it’s like to struggle with weight as a child/teenager. Yet, once in a while we have to step back and ask ourselves if our level of concern has more to do with our child or our own past? In short, are we helping or projecting – or some combination of the two? Maybe we’re still struggling with weight or other body image issues. Regardless of how we approach our health and what priorities we focus on, our children are undeniable witnesses to our lives. They see our daily endeavors, and they undeniably pick up on our self-talk. What messages are we sending (consciously and unconsciously)?

If your child is old enough, have a heart-to-heart about experiences with health, body image and weight. Divulge honestly – but selectively. You can show your kids you identify without burdening them. Most importantly, talk about where you get your sense of perspective. What guides you, motivates you and grounds you day to day? What have you learned that you wish you knew earlier in your life? What do you hope they enjoy about living a healthy life and taking care of themselves?

Talk about what health really means.

It’s pretty easy for kids to grow up not really having a clear understanding of health. Hey, most adults don’t get it either. If I’m not sick, I must be healthy, right? Health as a concept can be a random swirl of disconnected images for kids: food pyramids, sweaty gyms, sports icons, a salad bar. How do they put it together? What does it mean to be healthy? To feel healthy?

In the vast array of images and messages out there, kids have to be pretty thrown by the paradoxical shape of it all. On the one hand, there’s infinite fun to be had in downing every variety of fast food [7], sodas, energy drinks [8], chips and other snack abominations [9] (just look at the youth-centered commercials). On the other, there are tabloid articles about celebrity crash diets [10] and stories of their three hour a day workout routines. Our culture encourages either disregarding or punishing the body – making a joke of physical health or exercising/depriving ourselves into the ground. The result? As a culture we don’t have the most comfortable relationships with our bodies. It’s little surprise that many of our kids absorb this mindset.

Parents, unfortunately, have a lot of ground to fill in. Find a chance to talk about what health means to you personally. How did you come to learn about healthy eating? Why do you make the choices you do? What gets you motivated to stay active, to keep your stress under control? When do you feel the best physically? Ask them what makes them feel healthy, strong and rejuvenated? Is there a way you can help support those experiences (e.g. emotional support or family activities)? Let it be an open and continuing conversation. Let it be a catalyst for healthy changes and experimentation. Let it be a challenge to your family to play more [11], cook more [12], do more, get out more [13].

Talk about what living really means.

This website is all about health, yes. Nonetheless, I put health squarely into a large picture of happiness [14] and vitality [15]. Too often the messages kids get come off as instructive but less than relevant and inspiring. In the midst of navigating the social scene, figuring out an identity, and finding their way through school and other responsibilities, dry details can quickly fall on deaf ears. Consider a different angle. We hear a lot of success stories [16] from people who have overcome serious health issues, dropped weight that they’d wanted to lose for years (or decades), and/or turned around their lifestyle to gain a whole new sense of energy in their lives. A common thread in so many of their accounts is a sense of self-investment. Whether a serious medical scare that made them realize how precious (and endangered) their lives were or the culmination of a deep soul-searching, something sparked a novel sense of ownership. Their health mattered more because they’d chosen to see it and value it in a new way.

Maybe talking to kids about real health ultimately means talking about life. Owning your health necessitates – on some level – knowing and respecting yourself. It’s a self-commitment after all. The more self-confidence and self-respect we have, the more likely we are to invest in ourselves.

For kids who struggle with weight and body image, too often the goal is outside themselves, remote and elusive. How can the goal finally be authentically personal? What does it mean to dig down and learn to tune out the noise in life – the social clamor, the media messages? What’s there to listen to once you reach the other side of the commotion? How, finally, do they see themselves there? What does their vision of a healthy and happy life look like from that vantage point? Kids, like the rest of us, shape their health a step at a time. Maybe a parent’s best role is to help them start down their own path.

And now…let me know what you think. What should kids hear growing up? How can a parent walk the line to empower their kids’ overall health and well-being? How do we avoid the traps that either alienate or enable? I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for reading.