Preschool teachers will tell you that most 4 year olds- boys and girls- say they like the way they look, and have no trouble identifying other kids in magazines and books who look like them, and they do it without judgment. Most second grade teachers will tell you they have a lot of students who don’t like the way they look- most of them are girls- and they are having trouble picking out pictures of other kids in magazines and books that look like them. How do our kids get from A to B in just 4 years, especially girls?

Moms and daughters change profoundly after birth; emotionally, physically, cognitively. Though the baby’s body and brain are growing at an astonishing rate compared to mom’s, they both need to come to terms with their new bodies and brains, and they can be great helps to one another in the search for a feel-good foundation for enduring positive body images. Yes, images: there are thousands, not just the one sold you and her by Disney, Mattel, et al.

Breast-feeding babies suck up fats by the pound, giving the mom hope that her pre-baby body is just around the corner. But she soon discovers that she is on a new path, and her sidekick has a little body with a brain that will be watching like a hawk to what mom has to say about, and do with, both of their bodies; an important reason to give what comes out of your mouth and your schedule careful thought while you are living with this little sponge.

A Penn State study of maternal messages to preschoolers about body image found that the more moms talk with their children about being ‘bigger’ (presumably in the context of growing up to be a ‘ big girl/boy’), the more the body image for preschoolers skewed toward ‘being bigger’ – not necessarily older.  So –

1) eliminate ‘fat/thin talk’ from your home, and call it out when you hear it

2) talk explicitly about how you feel when you eat healthy and when you don’t

3) affirm that people don’t need to look any particular way to be happy

4) teach that how we treat people matters more than having a ‘perfect’ body – which doesn’t exist anyway

5) don’t fret/complain about your appearance in front of your kids. Moms who do are quite likely to have 8 year old daughters who do the same

On the other hand, most pediatricians will tell you, what the mom does about her own and her children’s physical well-being trumps what she says. So-

1) take her on your walks/runs/hikes/bikes and let her see & feel what it does for you and her; emphasize why this matters more to how you feel than how you look

2) focus on your whole family’s nutrition and snack life, not just yours or hers

3) let her hear you compliment other family/friends on their qualities and interpersonal gifts, etc., not just their appearance

4) call out the ridiculous when you see it (on TV, in movies, social media): make-up on young girls, makeovers for children, body-building boys. Comment on how this must feel to the kids.

Of course, moms are not the only reason kids do or don’t struggle with positive body images. Fathers have influence in this domain out of proportion to the amount of childcare they do, especially on their daughters. Schools and peers grow exponentially in influence over social values between 4 and 8. So take more delight than guilt along in your journey with your little sidekick, and you’ll feel better about yourself in no time.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).

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