I think if you asked any parent, they would agree that they want their children to be happy and healthy. We all want our children to have the gift of health and to live long and happy lives. All of us are coming from different places when we make decisions in regards to healthy lifestyles and how we implement them in our families. We were all raised differently and it can often be interesting and challenging to parents who may have been raised with different values around what “health” looks like and its’ importance.
A lot of us are also very confused. Should we take on the French philosophy of feeding? Should we eliminate gluten? Should we eliminate all food with dyes? What amount of exercise do we really end and what kinds are best? The questions can be limitless and so can the information that is out there. There are many new diets being introduced by the week and constantly changing ideas of what parents should or should not feed children. Many children today lead very sedentary lives with video games and media being a top priority. Included in this media are the messages sent about what is attractive in our society and what our society as a whole values. It unfortunately usually doesn’t take long for children to form an opinion of what they think their bodies are supposed to look like according to the messages that they see and hear. One of the messages youth often key in on is that being extremely thin is the ideal.
Though maintaining a healthy weight can certainly be a part of a healthy lifestyle, I have realized more and more that automatically equating health with weight and size can be misleading and even harmful. I think that most of us probably know at least one person who is very thin but doesn’t live a very healthy lifestyle. When we see a person who is overweight, we might also make assumptions about the lifestyle that person leads. I know that I can think of examples of several people in my life who although they may be a little overweight, they are actually very active and really value eating a healthy diet. It simply is not fair to make assumptions that people who are thin are automatically healthy people and that on the flip side people who aren’t super model thin aren’t.
In my Healthy Sprouts class that I taught through the Healthy Youth Program, we talked to families a lot about how we are all unique and come in different shapes and sizes. Instead of putting the majority of the focus on size, it is important to focus on health for everyone! Teaching our children how to care for their bodies (and modeling how we care for ours), is a huge gift! Every family is unique and faces different challenges, and there is not one size fits all package for any family. Through my research as a former nutrition educator for the Healthy Youth Program and my experiences as a parent, I have a few tips that might be helpful as you try to figure out what “healthy” might look like in your own family.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be active for at least 60 minutes every day. Because motivation, temperament, and activity level varies between each child, we might sometimes have to think outside of the box on how to make this process fun for each child. One of my children is so far not very excited about doing team sports, but she loves to ride her bike places and is open to doing yoga classes. I really do believe that there is a form of exercise for everyone. Walking, dance parties, organized sports, biking and swimming are a few of the many options when it comes to types of exercise we can encourage. This is something that I am trying to do a better job of with my own family, but my kids have been very receptive when we exercise together as a family.
- Really think about the messages that you send your children based off of how you talk about your own size and body. Are you constantly weighing yourself in front of your children? Do you sit and talk with a friend about dieting or criticize your own body in front of your children? Children are extremely smart and perceptive, and I have really been contemplating the messages I send to my children by my actions and the things I say. When you put yourself down in front of your children, you are putting down a person who means the very most to your child!
- Do your research. As you are deciding the specifics on what is best for your family, remember that not all information or internet sites are created equal. Often times sites have ulterior motives as they are trying to push their products.
- From the years I spent teaching parent/child baby classes, I can see how common it is in our culture to compare body shapes and sizes early on. Though it usually starts as an observation or in fun, parents are often comparing their children’s size to their peers. Grandparents might joke about or constantly bring attention to the fact that one grandchild is much larger than another, even as babies. I once had a mom break down in class once when she recalled how her family referred to her as the “fat” sister. She said that they were constantly joking and criticizing her and pushing her to lose weight. In tears, she told us that she will never do these comparisons or put this kind of pressure on her own daughters.
- Eat dinner together as a family whenever possible. Family meals are a time to not only share food but also to share about our days and to check in with each family member. I inherited my childhood family table, and every time I look at it, it reminds me of the many times my family gathered around that table. And to be able to do the same thing with my family feels very special!
- Be mindful about how much and which kinds of media you allow enter your home. Though we won’t be able to always shelter our children from everything, we can do our part to have a healthy relationship with media. When we do see commercials or ads, we can talk about the fact that even these pictures aren’t usually accurate pictures of what the person really looks like. They are often photoshopping and changing models to fit the societal ideal even more. There is room to have many meaningful conversations about health and body image.
- Be more gentle with yourself. It is extremely important to me that my children have a healthy self-image, yet I can be so hard on myself when I haven’t been exercising as much as I would like. It can also sometimes still be hard to accept the fact that my body, that has grown and birthed 3 children,might not quite go back to the way I would like it to, even when I am exercising and eating well. It truly is a miracle that my body was able to grow these 3 children that are now in my care each day. I should be celebrating the beauty of this as I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I would love to hear your thoughts on how you approach health and body image in your own families. How are your ideas influenced by the way you were raised? What fun tips to you have for other families based off of what has worked well for you? I wish you and yours health during this new school year and in the years to come!