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What message are we sending our kids?

Published in Pediatrics, For the Health of It Author: Jennifer Harris, RDN LD CEDRD

Consider these scenarios:

  • Recently at a family gathering, my niece asked her mother if she could have a piece of bread — she promptly followed this request by reassuring her mother she had eaten all of the fruits and vegetables on her plate. This child is not allowed to eat bread unless all other foods have been eaten.
  • Several years ago, a fellow parent mentioned to me that she told her daughter she needed to start running more to compensate for her noted increased intake of desserts. When I pointed out the potential message of the comment, she denied the intent, and of course, I believed her — parents don’t set out to hurt their children intentionally. But it didn’t matter — this child knew her mother was commenting on her weight.
  • Not long ago my college-aged daughter sent me this text: “Is cheese bad for me?” Apparently, a well-intentioned friend who is a student in a health care discipline noted her love for cheese and told her it was bad for her. This one comment shook her confidence level with regard to her eating routine.

When I relay stories like these to my own mother, she looks bewildered and tells me she never really had trouble getting us kids to eat. She served the meal, we showed up hungry, we ate what we wanted from the offerings placed before us, and we asked to be excused — usually eager to get back to our friends for more play time. My mother certainly didn’t worry about whether I was getting the right number of minutes of physical activity a day and there was no discussion about calories or “balancing the energy equation.”

But it’s different now. Obesity and eating disorders are on the rise among children under the age of 12. It’s easy to blame technology, safety, busy families and more food choices. Instead, we need to think about our reaction to weight and childhood obesity.

In our fight against obesity, have we sent the wrong messages to children? Emphasized weight rather than health? Fed our children for disease prevention instead of normal growth and development? Created anxiety and regret about food and numbers on a scale? It may be so: a survey of 10-year-old girls reported fearing becoming fat more than they feared losing a parent to cancer.

Children are frightened. Parents are confused.

And within this fright and confusion lies the obesity paradox: Are we treating the cause? Or are we causing what we are trying to treat? And are we tempting disorder in the process?

Read part 2 to find out how to talk to your kids about weight.