When people with kids talk about the good old days, they’re usually referring to the days before they had kids, when they had fewer responsibilities and got a lot more sleep. But now that my oldest is four-years-old, I have a new definition of the good old days: the days before every inappropriate thing I said was loudly repeated back by a smiling preschooler, generally in public. I knew he was paying attention, I just wasn’t fully aware of how closely he’d been watching and listening. Oops.

One of my goals as a parent is to raise body-positive children. This is extremely important to me, because as a therapist I have seen first-hand the devastating impact poor body image, chronic dieting, and disordered eating has on individuals. If there is anything I can do to safeguard my kids against these issues, and help them become positive influences on those around them, I will do it. What I hadn’t anticipated is that the hardest part about raising body-positive kids is that the work revolves mostly around changing my behavior, not theirs.

End the negative self-talk

Our children idolize us. We are their role models for nearly everything when they are little. They want to be just like us when they grow up. They scrutinize and mimic our every move. The pressure can be quite intense!

When they hear us speak negatively about ourselves, it has a tremendous impact on our kids. If mommy or daddy isn’t good enough, how could I possibly be good enough? Everyone says I look just like daddy, so if daddy’s belly is too big, mine must be too big too. Mommy is the prettiest person I’ve ever seen, so if her nose is ugly, mine must be super ugly. This is kiddo logic, and it sticks with them, informing them about how to view their own bodies. I’d implore you to end the negative self-talk both in front of your kids and behind closed doors, but I know that’s a whole other topic for another day, so I’ll say this: watch what you say about yourself in front of your kids, because they are listening.

Eyes on your own plate
Dinnertime small talk can be difficult on any given day. Everyone is tired, patience is running low, and depending on the age of your kids, they may or may not want to contribute much. This can often lead to dinner itself becoming the main topic of conversation. How’s the chicken? Did you put more salt in this than usual, because it’s gross. These things are all totally innocent and just fill the silence. But some questions carry more meaning. Did you really just finish all of that? You seriously want more? These questions carry judgement and insinuate that the eater is doing something wrong.

Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense discusses healthy eating habits for kids from infancy on. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the couch reading it when I was pregnant with my first child, and one part has never left my mind: when it comes to eating, parents control the what, when, and where. Kids control the how much. This has been my guiding principle for feeding my kids, whether it was bottles, their first finger food, or their current limited menu of acceptable food: hot dogs and chicken nuggets. When my two-year-old has repeatedly thrown all of his food to the floor with one sweep of the arm, I assume that means he’s done and I don’t push him to eat any more. I trust that he’s full. When my four-year-old asks for more, even though he’s eaten an adult-sized serving, I trudge back to the kitchen for more. I trust that he’s hungry. Inserting any judgment here will only interfere with his ability to trust his body and listen to his hunger cues. So keep your eyes on your own plate; there’s no need to comment on how much someone else is eating.

This is an ongoing, imperfect process. But I think we owe it to our kids to provide a safe place, free of food and weight judgement. Set them up for success, with a wide variety of food to explore and enjoy. And yes, both Oreos and hummus can happily coexist on that spectrum, no judgement needed.

-Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC

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Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in maternal mental health and trauma/PTSD. She sees adults and adolescents with a wide variety of needs including anxiety, depression, and body image concerns.

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