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SALT LAKE CITY — In the appearance-obsessed culture we live in, raising a body-positive child takes intentional work and effort. Helping a child respect and feel confident about his or her body is no small feat, but it's definitely possible.
Because our culture idealizes thinness, it may be easy to feel like your child’s body size is a problem. The real issue is that our children are taught that their appearance is where they get their worth and value — and it starts young, too.
Preschool and elementary-age children are more dissatisfied with their bodies than ever before, according to one study. Girls as young as 3 already perceive heaviness as “bad” and thinness as “good,” and more than a third of 5-year-old girls restrict their eating in order to stay thin.
So, let’s remember the goal as parents: raise resilient kids in a thin-obsessed culture.
Your kids will have negative thoughts about their bodies. Our goal isn’t to prevent that; it’s to help them be resilient to it. When they get teased, feel unhappy about their body or feel different, you’ll feel like the solution is to help them fit in. You can and should commiserate with them because it is hard, but be sure to bring them back to acceptance and respect for their bodies.
It’s essential that we help them — no matter how hard it is — to accept that their body is their body. Because body diversity is a thing (just look around), they don’t get to choose to be a different size or shape. In fact, the idea that if you just work hard enough you can look however you want to is a dangerous cultural narrative, and one of the root issues in 30 million people in the U.S. being diagnosed with an eating disorder. Intentional weight loss is positively associated with weight gain or weight cycling. In one study, 25% of kids who dieted developed an eating disorder.
And while they may not have control over what size or shape their body is, they do have control over how they treat their bodies. Body respect doesn’t require loving or even liking your appearance all that much; it’s simply learning to accept and embrace that this is your body and you can treat it well. That’s where body positivity and body confidence is found.
In reality, your child will grow up to be in the body that is meant for them if you allow them to. Parents who try to influence the size of their kids’ bodies do zero good and a tremendous amount of harm.
Here are three tips for raising body-positive children:
1. Give well-rounded compliments and avoid commenting on others' bodies
Give regular compliments that have nothing to do with appearance. For my own kids, I like to aim for the ratio of 10-to-1 — 10 non-appearance compliments for every one appearance compliment.
It’s fine to give appearance-based compliments. You may just want to be intentional about also including non-appearance based compliments. Some examples of these type of compliments include:
- "You are so great at saying sorry."
- "You have such a gift for making people laugh."
- "You worked so hard to achieve that goal."
- "You have such a silly and fun sense of humor."
- "You were so strong and brave today."
- "You are so sensitive to how other people feel."
- "You are always so willing to help."
- "You are so reliable and trustworthy."
- "I can always count on you."
- "You are so good at being creative."
- "I just love how your mind works."
- "You have a special gift for making others smile."
- "You are so fun to be around."
- "I always look forward to hearing about your day."
- "You are a great leader."
2. Use accurate descriptors of their body
If they are larger or a higher weight, don’t tell them they aren’t. If they are short, don’t tell them they aren’t. If they have brown hair, don’t tell them it’s blonde. The point is to make sure you don’t send the message that what they are is "bad." Use accurate descriptors including heavy, small, large, round, thin, short, tall, etc. Treat them as mere descriptors and not insults.
3. Focus on feel and function rather than appearance
If you feel it’s necessary, what meaningful changes could your child make for their health and well-being without it being about weight? Try making family goals (instead of singling them out) for improving healthy behaviors. That might include trying new recipes or eating more colorful foods. Maybe you’d like to take up an active family hobby. And don’t forget about sleep, stress management, mental and emotional health, etc.
Whatever you choose, keep it positive. Focus on what you want to add (what you want to do) versus what you may subtract (what you don’t want to do).
Overall, you’ll find it helpful to not comment on your body, their body or other people’s bodies. You’ll find your child is better able to naturally take care of themselves when they aren’t worried about what other people think. By not commenting on other people’s bodies, you’ll avoid making them wonder what other people are saying about their bodies.
Raising a body-positive child won’t happen by chance, and it won’t happen passively. This is something you must be diligent about every day.
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