A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

What Parents Can and Can't Do About Their Children's Weight

Refocusing on teaching healthy attitudes towards food and weight

Writing about the relationship between parenting and food for the past few years, I’ve had the dubious honor of hearing my fair share of stories about parents’ struggles with food. The tales trickle in, one after the other, variable in detail but all sharing the same gist: adults imposing their own weight and health anxieties onto children. Sometimes the imposition is cruel and unnecessary—an unthinking adult who tells a child he’s fat, for example. Or else it’s a tale about a family obsessively centered on weight and food, a dynamic the parents may not even be fully aware of. Yet however these missteps differ in intention and execution, as a whole they convince me how desperately we need to work on improving the way parents discuss and handle food with their children.

Our environment plays mercilessly on our worst fears: impossibly thin celebrities; pop-ups pledging to lead us down the path to permanent weight-loss nirvana; omnipresent ads for miracle foods/powders/creams. These messages and images may have been around for decades, but they've been magnified and amplified to an unprecedented degree by modern media. My youth was certainly saturated with movie, television and print imagery, but today’s kids have that plus the internet, which reaches them far more relentlessly. They must contend as well with online social interactions that can feed upon their insecurities with fire-wire speed. Speculation on who’s hot or not, once the fodder of phone conversations or frat party gossip, can now spread like lightning through communities and way, way beyond. It’s Gossip 10.0, and much of it is focused on appearances.

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The heightened communication and information-sharing of the online world has an equally inflammatory effect on parental anxieties. When we receive constant exhortations to “be healthy,” it’s inevitable to transfer that desire onto our children. Of course we want them to be healthy—but what does “healthy” mean to you?

Once, parents’ primary goal was to raise children who survived them, and that was far from a given. The definition of “healthy” for most of mankind’s existence was simple: staying alive. With improvements in science and medicine, as well as an increasingly complex food chain, “healthy” is now an infinitely more subjective assessment.

I’d encourage all parents to examine quite seriously what “healthy” means to them, especially when it comes to their children. Most Americans equate thinness with healthiness—how can we not, with the constant refrain of weight-loss sounding in our ears? The association of thinness with longevity, beauty, and success is impossible to avoid and goes more or less unquestioned. Only in very extreme cases does excessive thinness start to be a concern, and that line has receded farther and farther as the years pass. Even those suffering from debilitating eating disorders can be objects of envy.

Inevitably, then, parents project a desire for thinness onto their children. Such a wish may seem of a piece with our general hopes and dreams for them: we want them to be successful, to be happy, to be fulfilled. Yet dreaming that your child will attend an Ivy League school is nothing like wishing they were thin—or at least, it shouldn’t be. If you really wanted that for your child, you should probably have married the absolute thinnest person you could find, and only after checking out their family to make sure said thinness is the genuine genetic article. Was that one of your top criteria in choosing a mate?

If, as I truly hope, your answer to that is “No!” you can also recognize how futile it is to try to control what shape your child becomes. Like marrying a Korean spouse and demanding your child have red hair and freckles, or being short and insisting your child be six feet tall, trying to mold your child’s body shape into one significantly different from its genetic destiny is at best quixotic, and at worst cruel.

It can be extremely difficult to square this kind of acceptance with the responsibilities loaded onto modern parents: you want your child to be “healthy,” “healthy” equals thin, and therefore you are responsible for making sure your child is thin. But especially if you and your spouse aren’t naturally thin—or weren’t as children—then you’re likely fighting a losing battle, and one that can have terribly significant collateral damage in the form of damaged self-esteem or eating disorders.

While we don’t have as much influence as we might wish over our child’s body type and shape, we do have enormous power as parents in a related area: how our children feel about eating, weight, exercise, and so forth. You have a huge responsibility here to set a good example—in what you eat and how you exercise, but more importantly in how you conduct yourself around the issues of food and weight. If you obsess over calories and exercise excessively, you may pass that on. If you frequently restrict and ban foods, your child will take note. If you talk incessantly about weight, guess who’s going to do the same one day? And sooner than you might imagine. Focusing these bad behaviors on yourself rather than your child is no failsafe, either: as soon as children start paying attention, they’ll notice that they get ice cream but you never allow yourself a bite. Or, conversely, that they aren’t allowed to eat refined sugar but that the package of Oreos on the top shelf keeps emptying out.

Striving to exert a positive influence on our children’s attitudes about weight, food and body image is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Often, this means working at odds to societal messages and to our own internal anxieties. Yet however difficult, this is truly what setting a healthy example should mean. To avoid raising a new generation filled with anxiety and confusion over how to eat, doomed to be harried by self-doubt or even self-hatred, let's prioritize the huge influence we have on our children's state of mind and purge ourselves of unrealistic expectations about how to mold their body shapes.

What I cooked this month:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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