Recently, a blog post ("How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body") made its rounds on Facebook. Many friends posted it, others reposted or commented, "this is great" or "loved this." I understand it was a very sweet message encouraging parents to have their daughters climb mountains, embrace teamwork and cook with six sticks of butter. But the advice for talking to your daughter about her body came down to this: "Don't talk to your daughter about her body except to teach her how it works."
Hmm, this is actually good advice for very young girls. When I speak in preschools and kindergartens, children embrace how their bodies' function; we talk about what helps to heal boo boos and what's good for the sniffles. Sadly, children (both girls and boys) leave the cocoon of boo boos and rainbows and receive messages about their bodies. At a certain point, saying nothing, or as the author advises, telling your daughter she looks "healthy" or "strong," isn't going to cut it. And there's more. I often hear from mothers who say, "She gained some weight but I don't want to say anything." And you know what? The adolescent or teen tells me "my mother thinks I'm fat." So much for silence.
Talk less, listen more
It's difficult to give blanket advice regarding children and weight. I recall a meeting at my older son's school. It was the summer before many children went off to sleep away camp. I was advised to "have the sex talk with your son before he hears it from his peers." I bought the suggested books, psyched myself up and started reading with him. Two pages in he said, "Mom, is it okay if I play basketball now?" He wasn't ready. Trust your instincts. I find a great way to glean information is to ask, "What are your friends saying about" (fill in the blank). This is a way to take a pulse. "Are any of the girls talking about clothes?" "Do boys comment about who is good at sports?" "Do you agree?" You don't have to say much.
Car rides are a great time for these conversations. There are no distractions, it doesn't feel forced like the dinner table (a terrible place for weight talk) and if your children are young and in the backseat, they aren't looking directly at you. "Do kids say anything about who's taller or shorter or heavier or thinner?" "Do your friends focus on healthy eating?" Starting with easy to answer questions paves the way for more touchy subjects. Sometimes, you don't even need to "go there" -- your children will if they want to talk about something.
Use the D word
I am a fan of realistic advice when it comes to both nutrition and parenting. I know there are parents who don't curse in front of their children or don't let them watch the news. Perhaps these same parents nodded along when they read the blogger's (credentials? nope, credential-less) advice to avoid the "D" word (that would be diet) and to tell your children that their thick thighs are good for running marathons.
In my NYC office, parents are so scared about "creating eating disorders" that they fail to have important conversations. Tell your children what a diet is, whether it's a "nut-free" diet they may be familiar with from allergic friends or the silly diet someone on a tabloid may have been rumored to try. Show them images before and after airbrushing so they know that most of us, even models and celebrities, have parts that aren't perfect. And if you're concerned with eating disorders, shift your concern to connecting with your child. How are they doing socially, academically? In my younger son's fourth grade class they interviewed each other, and "What are you scared of?" was one of the questions. Knowing the answer to this is way more valuable than any nutrition facts panel or calorie concerns.
Make Family Style Adjustments
In many families, children lie on opposite ends of the weight spectrum. One mom told me she had a "bipolar pantry" with items for her super skinny son on one shelf and others for her newly-pudgy pubescent daughter. While we shared a laugh and I understood the mom's intentions, we need unified family rules. Less sugar, more greens, slower eating and better hydration, to name a few, should be goals for everyone.
None of this is easy. We can dumb it down all we want but kids are smart. They live in the same world we do. As parents or teachers or mentors, let's guide them with honesty and information rather than glossing it all over.
Have you talked to your children about weight? How have you approached topics of body image, weight and the media? Do you think it's a taboo subject?