These days, two powerful and often overwhelming messages about food and children are being shouted in parents’ ears: “Don’t let your children get too fat!” And, equally loudly: “Don’t let your children get too thin!” And then there are the corollaries: make sure your kids know what healthy eating is. But, please, also make sure they don’t develop unhealthy obsessions about eating (or not eating). So what is a parent supposed to do, squeezed between the anti-obesity forces on the one side and the fear of eating disorders on the other? On which side are we supposed to focus our energies? Should our children's snack be a healthy carrot stick or a guilt-free cookie?
Last week I described how the adults in our children's lives (often inadvertently) send them messages about weight and body image that may be inappropriate or even harmful. This includes us, their parents, and others who love them, especially if they come from a different generational perspective. It's obviously a very emotional subject, which is exactly what makes food and parenting such a fraught topic, and also such an interesting and complex one. How do we balance our own emotional reactions around food and weight with the very practical goal of nourishing our children? It's clear there are dangers a-plenty lurking out there--and even in our own homes--when it comes to the messages our children receive about weight. But ultimately we have to figure out the right (or, at least, a better) way to talk to them about eating, food and weight.
One mother recently described some role-playing exercises her daughter's Brownie troupe was working on about meanness and how to combat it on a peer level. Her child and a friend (both of whom are quite thin) were assigned a skit in which one had to tell the other, "That shirt makes you look fat." The mother was somewhat aghast at this, and her daughter was clearly uncomfortable with the exercise. Was it possible that in second grade, girls were already using weight as a weapon? Upon further investigation, the mother learned that the skit was indeed modeled on an exchange between two girls in the class. Nevertheless, she wasn't sure it was appropriate to inculcate her own daughter into this loaded rhetoric when it hadn't yet occurred to her that girls could hurt each other by using words like "fat." Is this kind of role-play itself premature, as this mother intuited? A better place to start, especially with young (pre-pubescent children) may not be with peer interactions but within the family.
Take a keen look at yourself: what is your relationship with food? Are you over- or underweight? Are you happy with how you eat? The family’s attitude towards--and history with--food plays an enormous role in determining what a child’s needs are when it comes to eating. Some families have a relatively healthy relationship with food: they cook at home more than they eat out, they use fresh and whole foods as much as possible, they eat meals together at a table, and so on. Perhaps most importantly, they enjoy eating and having it as a normal part of their lives.
Other families, usually taking cues from parents’ or even grandparents’ disordered eating, find they can’t do these things. They eat fast food or processed food most of the time. They eat on the run, separately, or in front of the TV or computer. They constantly try to limit or restrict what they eat, leading to anxiety or stress around food. They talk obsessively about what foods they should or shouldn't eat. Whatever the behavior, it seems obvious it will influence how the children of the family feel about food and weight.
So maybe by thinking about it this way, you can decide which camp your family falls into, which warning message (if any) most pertains to you. But what’s scary to me is how these two extremes feed into each other: in my nightmare scenario, one day I’m conscientiously educating my daughter about healthy eating, and the next I’m trying to force-feed her milkshakes because her weight has dropped dangerously low.
I do firmly believe that understanding and controlling your own food issues is a crucial part of passing on a truly healthy attitude towards food (and by healthy, I don’t mean guilt-laden, restrictive eating). And yet, it's a step that so many parents seem oblivious to. How many stories have you heard of parents whose obsession with "portion control" extends to their children? Or parents who enforce strict no-sweets rules for their children, then gorge themselves with cookies (or, ahem, Halloween candy) once the kids are in bed? Unless you want your child to binge on sweets, count calories at age seven, or choose fast food over whole foods, start by identifying the eating behaviors of your own that you don’t want to pass on to the next generation. It’s all very well to make thinness a priority in your own life, for example, but do you really want it to be one of your child’s main goals? Or perhaps you snack all day long on sodas, chips and candy: is that how you want your child to eat?
By looking first into both our own and our families’ relationships with food, we can figure out exactly what messages we are already sending to our children about weight and food. And only then we can figure out what ideas we truly want them to receive and understand.
What I cooked this week: