7 tips for helping your child focus on their health — not the number on the scale

Guest post by Julie Letowski

DISCLAIMER: We at Offbeat Mama totally recognize that healthy comes in MANY shapes and sizes. This post is written from the point of view and based on the experiences of one person — the author, Julie. She wrote this in response to a recent piece about a Vogue writer who struggled with her daughter’s weight.

Photo by -Paul H-, used under Creative Commons license.

Throughout my elementary years I was a pudgy kid. By the time my lingering baby fat had fallen off I had learned to think of myself as unattractive and lazy. I wore layers to hide my body, never went swimming in a group, and was a chronic dieter until my early twenties when I essentially stopped eating altogether. I eventually climbed out of that hole but here I am at twenty-six and I find myself feeling like that fat kid all too easily.

These lingering feelings and really destructive behaviors that I fell into are a product of how my physical form and health were framed as a child. No doubt the adults in my life did what they thought was right but in their efforts to help me shed weight they caused me to take on some pretty severe insecurities and low self esteem. Now that I’m raising my son with my husband, who was also a chunky kid, we give lots of thought to how we’ll do things differently so that our son grows up healthy and feeling good about himself.

Health is the goal and it’s not a number

At ten years old I proudly proclaimed to a relative that I had lost F O U R P O U N D S ! ! after my recent visit to a nutritionist. And the praise I got for that feat was something I learned to crave. I started associating my success and bodily worth with a number on a scale when I was in fourth grade. When we teach our kids to value the number on the scale we are shifting their focus from what is really important and failing to educate them wholly. Instead of setting weight loss goals or praising lower numbers on the scale I think we have to start emphasizing and rewarding healthy choices. The more we teach our children to make those healthy choices the more the body’s weight will level out to its right place.

Kids like food; capitalize on that

Kids can learn to cook and give their input on meals before we head to the market. We can teach them to make healthier versions of their favorites so that when they go out into the world they’re prepared to take care of themselves. For our children to understand the connection between the food they put in their body and their overall health they first have to be connected to the food itself.

Cut the crap, don’t stock the crap

This is not our kid’s fault — ultimately we’re the adults and no kid can be held responsible for their weight when someone else is putting food on their plate. We must really and truly take a step back and look at what we are stocking in our pantries and putting on our tables. It’s okay if the crap food has gotten the better of you — it has gotten us all at some point. Tomorrow is a new day and the market is open!

All for one, and one for all

The number one thing we can do for our kids is to lead by example, whether it be with physical activity, positive body image, or healthy eating habits. Whatever rules we set for our children we must set for the entire family. Isolating a child with a special diet won’t make them feel good, or help them keep the weight off long-term. Been there, done that, and still have a little kid inside me that feels like an outsider because I wasn’t allowed to eat pizza at the pizza party. If the point is overall health shouldn’t everyone in the family be eating this way?

Get kids active — their way

We all have likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to physical activity. If you’re an avid runner that’s great! But don’t expect your kid to be. And don’t expect forcing them to trail behind you at the park to create that love for running either. We have to find what our kids like and do it with them. Do you have a gamer? There are plenty of fun active games out there. And go beyond giving them the game. Play it with them! Do you have a collector? Make a list of things to find on a hike. Our kids don’t need to feel like they’re training for a marathon. They just need to be taught that a healthy, vibrant life has movement in it every single day.

Keep the lessons private

A public setting is the last place our kids need to learn lessons about food. Take it from me, there is nothing more humiliating than having food taken off your plate or being scolded publicly about your weight. When we are out we can’t control the food that is available but we can come up with a game plan beforehand, talking about what food choices might be better than others. Our children need to learn to make their own food choices if their weight isn’t to be a chronic problem. If you feel there are choices that need to be addressed, by all means address them. But do so in private and come from a place of love — make it clear to your child that your motive is a long, healthy life for them.

Don’t hand off personal baggage

If you have struggled with your own body image and you have a track of negative feelings about the way you look playing in your head don’t give that recording to your child. They have a chance to grow up and lead a life without that. As much as you think your child is a direct reflection of you, they aren’t. And as much as you might think your child’s weight somehow shines a light on your own weight struggles or inadequacies as a parent, it doesn’t.

Comments on 7 tips for helping your child focus on their health — not the number on the scale

  1. I’m so glad to see this. I’ll be having a daughter in June so I’m already trying to watch what I say about body image and beauty ideals. My mom, though a FANTASTIC mother, would comment about weight A LOT – about how she wished to lose weight, about how impressive it was when others did, about how depressing it was when someone gained weight or fell off a diet. The lesson “beauty=thinness=worth” was clear to me at a very young age. A lot of my play revolved around a depressed person losing weight and then becoming happy and accepted. I hope I can adhere to these tips and watch my mouth. Even though I know “beauty=thinness=worth” is not true, every once in a while those thoughts will sneak past my lips. So darn hard to reprogram!

  2. I am so glad to see this. My husband and I are trying to get healthy now. It seems impossible and it’s hard being bombarded by body shaming in every direction, but we’ve decided aim for healthy and we KNOW what that is.

  3. I worry about this with my future kids. I have a terrible habit of associating “health” with “ideal weight number”. Truth be told, I’m still not at my “ideal weight number”, but I’m probably the most active and healthiest I’ve been all my life. So in my head, what I’m doing isn’t working because it’s not showing itself on the scale. I haven’t made the connection. And sometimes I make bad food choices like, eating a bag of chips…or having fries instead of salad…and I really beat myself up about it. Which only perpetuates the cycle.

    My husband has been trying to reprogram my thought process, and I’m trying very hard to rework my body image outlook. But it is very hard when you are brought up that lower numbers=better…I know my family means well, but it really does feed the struggle.

  4. This made me cry. My mother told me I was fat through my entire childhood (she still does) and it took me years to realise that I wasn’t, that she was projecting her issues onto me. I still have these issues and I am terrified of projecting them onto a child of mine because I don’t want my child to grow up the way I did.

    Thank you for writing this.

    • Mine too! If she was still a part of my life, she’d be doing it now. If it helps, my partner and I are doing pretty well with our girls so far. What we’re trying to teach is that healthy isn’t a number, it’s a state of being.

      • That does help, thank you. And that’s exactly what I hope to teach my children. The scary part is where I catch myself thinking in numbers or “fat” and I am worried that I will accidentally pass that on, if that makes sense. So it’s good to know someone else is managing to get it right 🙂

    • Did we have the same mother? I’m struggling through all this and only in the past couple of years have I been able to be open and honest about it all.

      I’m raising my stepson and he was 98 pounds back in November at age 8. His mother and grandmother kept telling him “It’s okay, you’ll lose the weight when you get older” or “You can just buy your food; you don’t have to learn how to cook”. The grandmother would feed him donuts, brownies, chocolate cake, etc. nonstop.

      When he got here, it was a culture shock to say. He was perfectly fine to refer to himself as obese and would say it very matter-of-fact. As a person who is growing and learning to love her own skin despite not being society’s acceptable size, that killed me to hear him say those things.

      We’ve been instilling the idea that being active is fun and it’s way better to be healthy. Healthy isn’t a size, it’s a lifestyle. I’m trying to teach him better choices and better options and set an example through myself as well.

      • I think we may have done, although my grandmother is okay!

        My mum would always do this thing where she tried to awkwardly disguise her comments with concern for health (without ever really teaching me about healthy food choices) and always ended up telling me I was fat. I remember these conversations from when I was twelve or so to when I got engaged last year and one of her first comments was “you will lose a few pounds before the wedding, won’t you?”.

        I do not believe that I am fat, I am reasonably healthy and a perfectly good size and shape. It’s hard though because my mum’s voice still sneaks in now and again and that’s what I’m afraid of, I guess. I don’t want to speak to my children with my mother’s voice.

        On the other hand, she did teach me to cook, which has stood me in good stead.

        • Those memories really never fade, even if we find ways to handle them now compared to before. I too got those snide, under the breath comments. “Are you sure you want to be eating again?” It took me until after high school to be able to wear jeans again because she had me convinced I was too fat to wear jeans.

          Now that I can truly see where it was coming from, I use that previous anger to make better choices and better myself.

  5. Thanks for this! Well said. I am lucky enough to have been raised by parents with a good outlook on health, nutrition and physical activity…after falling off the wagon so to speak in my early 20s I am now back to my healthy roots (many thanks to my parents encouragement once again), in good shape and most of all relatively emotionally stable which I credit exercise for helping with. My mom and I are signing up to run the Trans-Rockies trail race in 2013…that’s 200km running over 6 days. Together as mother and daughter. =) I am continually thankful for the gift that health and fitness has been in my life, so I just wanted to really encourage and applaud this outlook on parenting. Healthy habits without perpetuating body shaming is one of the greatest things you can give your child.

  6. This addresses some of my biggest fears after finding out that I will be having a girl this August. I have had terrible “food issues” since childhood (from society and family pressures) and do not want to project the insecurities I still have on my daughter. I am really hoping that I will be able to focus on making healthy and fun food and activity choices WITH my daughter.

  7. While I grew up with a Mother who was naturally healthy, an excellent role model, and fed us well – my husband was a chubby kid in a family where cordial was the go to drink of choice, food was comfort and veges were an optional novelty. To my husband, if it’s open it must be eaten NOW. I make a batch of biscuits on Saturday arvo, and they’ll be gone when I make my lunch on Monday. While he’s improved his health, my husband’s attitude to food is either ‘gimme ALL!!’ or throw in the towel. The concept of a side dish of half a cup of creamy pasta with his chicken and veges is beyond him – he’s either eating a massive bowel of it with all the trimmings or he’s eschewing it completely and being ‘healthy’. When I have the side dish anyway I get told that I’m going to get fat. He’s not trying to be mean – that’s how his family ‘help’ and ‘encourage’ each other. Then they eat an entire cake and commiserate over their weight issues.

    I worry that my husbands food issues will be picked up by our daughter, who is due in July. I would like to be able to have ‘treat’ food in the cupboard and have it last more than 2 days, and for our daughter to learn that there are no bad foods, but there are foods that you eat in moderation.

    Any suggestions on how to assist a grown man to change his eating habits and opinions of foods?

    • Ugh, I know how you feel. Any food in the house gets eaten pretty much right away. I haven’t brought this up with my SO as he has gained weight lately and is embarrassed, and frankly neither of us are eating terribly healthy right now because we don’t have time to cook food.

      Still, I hope to have that conversation with him sometime after May (when he graduates and we both have a bit more free time) – we have no plans for children in the immediate future so our timescale is a bit longer than yours, but I’d really encourage just talking to him and telling him your fears. Just try not to be too accusatory!

      One thing that has worked a bit for me though is that I have “my snacks”, so if we get ice cream, we’ll get two pints. One is for him, one is for me. He may eat his all tonight, but mine tends to last ~2 weeks, but he won’t touch it unless I offer.

    • Obviously this is just an opinion, but as someone with the same issue (“Eat it all NOW!” or “Get it out of my sight; I’m being healthy…”), it isn’t as easy as just changing eating habits and opinions. And doing that, in and of itself, is very hard already.

      That impulse, at least in myself, is a dissociation between snacking and eating. I can literally eat an entire bag of chips in a half-hour and not feel full, but a tuna salad sandwich is too much food for my stomach, and can leave me feeling uncomfortably stuffed. It’s entirely psychosomatic. And for anything to work for me, I have to literally “plate” every meal, in the chef’s sense of the word.

      When I eat/snack/munch, I have resorted to making it an ordeal. Ice cream is scoopd into a bowl or a cone. Chips are stacked on a plate. I have to actually make it an act of eating. Even my carrot sticks at work are taken out of the plastic bag and put on a saucer. I have completely stopped snacking. And since I’m activating the part of my brain associated with eating that sandwich, t also tells me when I’ve had enough of the snack.

      But for a year before that, I stopped buying snacks entirely, and so did Groom. Everything I ate didn’t just have to be plated, but MADE and assembled. As difficult as it sounds, and it was, it’s the only thing that allowed me to now eat a handful of chips instead of a whole bag. Because the idea of having to get up to MAKE a handful of chips was the only thing keeping me from snacking during the first few months…

    • I really understand your husbands “All or nothing” philosphy toward food, because I am the same way. I have really bad impulse control, I am completely aware of it, and if I’m faced with food taht I love, I cannot stop myself from over-eatinging. The only choice for me is to avoid thoe foods altogether.

      I am at a point right now where I am uncomfortably overweight. I need to lose weight and start a more healthy lifestyle, but I know that probably the first 6 months to a year of changing my lifestyle is going to involve completely staying away from unhealthy foods, otherwise I won’t be able to take the weight off.

  8. This is awesome to read about. I don’t remember my mom ever commenting on weight or physical markers on herself or me for most of my childhood. We were very active, bike ride every night after dinner, running around and we ate quite healthily. I inherited great genes from her and I remember her having a natural six-pack for most of my childhood. My dad, who I saw much less, was overweight and loved good food. He never complained about his weight or seemed upset by it. I don’t remember anyone in my family (immediate and far-reaching) dieting or actively trying to lose weight.

    I always leaned to my mom’s side, but when puberty hit, along with other struggles, I very quickly stopped eating. I dug my heels in and lost twenty pounds on an already skinny frame. I struggled with eating and body image for six years and still have bad days. I vividly remember thinking that I was fat (when I was actually underweight) when I was 9 years old and vowing to eat only salads and waking up at 6 AM to run around my neighborhood.

    I always found it interesting, but frightening, how quickly it took hold of me without any familial pressure at all. I seriously worry about the effect I will have on children if my mom, who I don’t remember ever commenting on my weight (until I lost it all) or equating skinny with happy, could create me. I know that if I ever decide to have children I will spend a long time before pregnancy learning to shush myself when little things come out of my mouth like, “Ugh, I feel fat today” or “Am I skinny enough? Do I look ok?”

  9. I also think there’s a time and place for everything, and going with “everything in moderation” is a helpful way to view things.

    I’ll never forget being terribly aghast when a mother came up to her son at my birthday party and said “Oh, are you sure you want to eat that cake? Remember, you’re trying to lose weight!”

    I was horrified, especially because he promptly went and threw away the (SMALL!) slice of cake! Who says that sort of thing? I am %100 sure she meant it in the kindest way possible, and it was coming from a place of caring, but a special occasion party is not the place to browbeat someone for dietary choices!

  10. I grew up in a family that saw it a their personal mission in life to lert me know I was fat, and parents who forced and cajoled me to try every diet and sport conceived of in an effort to make me lose weight. All it ever did was make me push back and eat compulsively (not to mention hate exercise). Now I have a three month old daughter, and I find that my anxiety about reproducing my issues in her is already non-trivial. I recently read a section about food and health in a book called Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, that basically said that parents are responsible for offering healthy choices, but are not responsible for how much our children eat of those healthy foods (ie, no “finish everything on your plate”or”eat it today wear it tomorrow” allowed) or what they look like. I found this a relief. I’m happy to see the author saying essentially the same thing.

  11. I recommend reading about the Health At Every Size (http://www.haescommunity.org/) movement. It’s a health philosophy that moves away from health=size=worth and toward a more comprehensive, holistic view of health that accepts diversity in body size and shape and emphasizes eating nutritious food and exercising in ways one enjoys — with the ultimate goals of feeling good, having enough energy, basically being healthy, rather than the ultimate goal being weight loss or gain.

    One way to put it is “I eat well and exercise because I love my body (and want to treat it well), not because I hate it (and want to change it)!” This philosophy and movement make a lot of sense to me. 🙂

    • As a naturally skinny person, I find the Health At Every Size movement extremely helpful. When about 80% of what you see in the media about fitness and diet doesn’t pertain to you because losing weight would probably be unhealthy, it’s hard to get motivated!

      • i am in the same boat! my sister and i both have been naturally skinny- and i have to say, there are more issues associated with that than people realize or talk about. i have always been skinny but proportionately so, until about 7th grade when i grew about a foot. *every* school year after that, i was inevitably called into the nurses office, weighed and measured, and talked to about eating disorders. not exactly confidence boosting. i would go home after school and *eat* in an attempt to be more “normal.” on top of that, because i was thin and active through high school, i was very flat chested and teased constantly. not fun.
        agreeing with Dina, it does make it hard to find motivation to exercise! (i will have to do some reading about the movement!) it also is hard to talk about, because if you begin to “complain” about being skinny… well you can imagine how many people roll their eyes or make sarcastic comments and don’t take it seriously.

        • I love to excercise to build muscle, and have energy. You just have to ignore everything people say, like “You don’t need to exercise because you are THIN” or “You can afford to eat this doughnut” I think that’s why I wasn’t as active as I should have been growing up because exercise is for atheletes or people with “weight problems” Either that or maybe I was just lazy…haha!

          Now that I’m older, I don’t care as much what people think or say, so I do make comments about how hard it is to find affordable clothes in my size or whatever the topic.

        • OOOOH! I hate this. One of my best friends was perpertually thin and was constantly being encouraged to eat (like Mrs. Claus, “Eat, Santa! EAT!”) because she was “too skinny”. I remember once coming to her defense by reminding the assailant that they would NEVER in a million years tell me about how I should quit eating because I was too fat! It’s a horrible double-standard.

    • Thanks for recommending the Health at Every Size movement! I didn’t know such a thing existed. It seems like it has a lot of sound advice for people on all the places on the size spectrum (for the record, I definitely fall into the bigger size category). It’s kind of crazy that the simple idea of “enjoying movement” never occurred to me. Movement is what I’m supposed to do if I want to be thinner/lose weight. It’s not fun. It’s work (hence “work out”). It’s both really eye-opening and pretty fucked up that “enjoying movement” did not occur to me until now. The closest my thought process ever came to “enjoy movement” is “find a fitness activity you enjoy so it doesn’t feel like work (with the implied ending to the sentence being “even though it is.”). “Enjoy movement.” Wow.

  12. Wonderful post. I can definitely relate- both my parents have struggled with body image issues and weight, a lot of which have been passed on to me. :/ My Dad (who had anorexia in his 20s, and is a serial yo-yo dieter) teased me horribly about my weight, and my Mum (who is a brillant mother in every other way, don’t get me wrong) would often wring her hands in worry that I’d get diabetes or need my knees replaced or wouldn’t be able to have babies because of my weight. I went on my first diet (Atkins) at 14- with no discouragement from Mum whatsoever. :/

    My life changed recently when I discovered the Health At Every Size movement- which takes the focus of weight loss encourages eating healthy food and exercising as a way of maintaining health. It strongly advocates behavior-centered health rather than diets, and one of the major tenents of the movement is that health is not a number on the scale. And that it’s absolutely possible to be overweight and in good health- just as it’s possible to be thin and unhealthy. The HAES movement has totally opened my eyes, and has empowered me to take charge of my physical and mental health, without obsessing about weight- which never got me anywhere.

    I am worried about having children (of both genders) and passing my old food demons and self-image issues on to them. But, I definitely want to encourage my future children to make healthy choices, and let them know that health and weight aren’t the same thing. And, of course, I want them to grow up with a strong self-esteem- which isn’t contingent on how they look. Which’ll be easier said than done- but I want to try.

  13. Speaking personally, my relatives are lower middle class and slightly large but speak regularly in disparaging terms about their and everyone else’s size. Unfortunately they also refuse to let food go to waste, so as a child I had to eat every bit of food I chose.
    My closest friends through school were more slender, coordinated and athletic than me. While we climbed trees, played softball and roamed all over the countryside together I always struggled to keep up.
    At 11 I developed cysts on my thyroid and shot up to 5’9″ with a little additional pudge- ever since I associated my large stature with being too fat.

    From 16-22 my body dimorphism was in full swing. After looking back over reams of photos from those ages I realized I was a super hot lil’ piece, but had spent years making poor choices in friends and partners.

    I have decided that even now that at 26 I’m nearly 6ft tall, 250lbs (80lbs heavier) and look closer now to how I thought I did then, I am NOT ABOUT to continue agonizing.
    I’ve also confronted my own hypocrisy, as I identify as pansexual and substantial people of all genders appeal more to me physically.

    Thank you, thank you thank you- to Julie for writing and Offbeat Mama for featuring this! The commenters who mentioned HAES are right on also.
    I think one of the more important concepts to teach children is pleasure. I move my body frequently now in ways that I enjoy- even if that means “hurting so good.” I seek out healthy foods then take joy in preparing meals and eating adventurously.
    Like so many people here we are simply trying to conceive, but this is all so important for us to convey to our future kids.

  14. My parents were always very healthy eaters, and I think part of it was that we didn’t have a lot of money. When I was growing up, 70’s-80s processed food was more expensive, but also really gross. (maybe it’s still gross) so almost everything was made from scratch or eaten whole. We are also small framed people.
    Now that I have a 16 month old, I get worried that he is too skinny, and I’m not feeding him enough. My mom had to tell me that he is NOT skinny, he is just lean, and don’t worry about it etc. I’m so glad she said that. I always had to hear, the “You are too skinny!” comments from adults and it made me feel really weird that someone was looking at my body. I don’t want to do that to someone!

  15. “This is not our kid’s fault — ultimately we’re the adults and no kid can be held responsible for their weight when someone else is putting food on their plate.”

    Amen. My sister and I both struggled with weight control growing up, because of the way we were raised. My parents were poor as children and had no food to eat, so we had to eat every damn thing on our plates before we could leave the table. Even if we were crying from full bellies, our dad would go as far as force feeding if he wasn’t in the mood for crying. We grew up into this mindset with tendencies to help us force it down – like saving your favourite parts of the meals for last or eating as quickly as possible. No matter what, that plate has to be empty.

    I’ve deprogrammed significantly from this due to my increasing weight. My sister is wicked skinny but she works her ass off at the gym every day. I have an unbareable knee problem so I either control my eating or hate myself. But we still struggle when it’s meals we really enjoy or buffets 🙂

  16. I’ve been that chunky kid struggling with weight loss my entire life. And losing weight and eating healthy is hard when you’ve had 20+ years of the opposite. I used to cut myself down so much when I wasn’t losing weight.
    Now, I am slowly (but steadily) losing the need to judge my health on my weight. Instead, I judge my health on how long I can play with little kids before I get pooped. Or how long I can play Just Dance against my smaller, lighter friends (I kick their butts on a regular basis). I try to judge my health on what I can do, and how I’ve been improving.
    At the end of the day, I can relax knowing that I’m trying to maintain health and n-shape-ness, rather than being a lighter me with no muscle strength or healthy fat.

  17. Awesome post. And glad several commenters linked to the HAES Community Resources (www.HAESCommunity.org). Hope others head on over to show your support and learn more. I’ve also written extensively to support people in adopting Health at Every Size. Check out the downloads page on the book’s website for free supportive information (www.HAESbook.com).

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