Presenting a balanced picture of nutrition to kids is no easy task. On one hand, we see the advertising industry’s idea of “beautiful” people: those who are thin, rich and cool. On the other hand, we are bombarded with advertisements for junk foods that do anything but make us beautiful. Surrounded by these “beautiful” people, we begin to feel insecure about our own body image. That feeling transfers very readily onto our children, so it comes as no surprise that kids, especially girls, can develop a fear of being “fat” by age 10. Meanwhile, boys may idealize an unrealistically muscular physique.
Parents and adults have a powerful influence on children’s self-esteem and body image. Studies show that self-esteem scores of kids ages 9 to 11 are lower when they think their parents are dissatisfied with their own bodies. Studies also show that parents who constantly diet to lose weight directly influence their young daughters’ ideas of dieting. Similarly, overzealous parents who restrict their child’s food intake at a very young age may risk a child with delayed growth; or one who rebels when parents are out of range and ends up overweight when they enter collage. So what can you do?
Don’t just hear, listen. When kids say they are too fat, skinny, short, or otherwise imperfect, the complaint may not really be about the physical. It pays to listen for an underlying message rather than rushing in with a solution. A child complaining about being fat may actually be facing academic or social problems. As parents, we want to rush in and fix things, but we may miss a greater opportunity to empower our children to help themselves. Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) is extremely useful for helping kids develop a greater sense of personal responsibility. English language PET lessons are available in Beijing from Kathryn Tonges (email@example.com).
Affirm and support. Assure kids that people come in all shapes and sizes. Kids have unique patterns of growth and will enter growth spurts at different times. There is no one “best” way to look. Children who you suspect are truly over- or underweight should be referred to a qualified healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment.
Enjoy real food. Avoid labeling food as medicine or poison. With older kids especially, telling them “it’s good for you” may actually discourage healthful eating. Scare tactics about clogged arteries rarely work – kids just don’t relate to them. Try invoking a beloved activity instead. For example, explain how the right foods can help with sports performance or remembering lines for the school play.
Give them healthy choices. When children are given a selection of healthful foods, they have an amazing ability to self-regulate their diets. Don’t obsess about specific meals. Instead, look at what your child eats throughout the week.
Get outside. Encourage children to turn off the computer and move, play and exercise. This could be extracurricular activities or even volunteering for social programs that require physical activity.Tree-planting, anyone?
Make mealtime a priority. Mealtimes are more than just an opportunity to refuel kids. During meals children also get a big dose of emotional, intellectual and spiritual nourishment. Passing the salad bowl and brown rice helps convey values and traditions in addition to good health.
Got a question? Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.