Today I am welcoming Kate from Making Our Memories to share 10 Tips for helping children develop a positive body image. I knew this was something that I had to work on when I had J, I was seriously overweight and my own attitude to my body was bad so I turned things around myself and have worked hard over the last 3 and a half years losing the weight, eating healthy and now encouraging us as a family to get out the house every single day of the year.
10 Tips for Building Healthy Attitudes
Hello! I’m Kate from Making our Memories, where my three inquisitive little people explore the world through playful activities. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to write a guest post for Cerys on Rainy Day Mum, and especially one about a subject close to my heart.
I’m going to start by sharing a secret with you. During my second pregnancy, I was absolutely terrified about being a mum to a girl. Not because I didn’t want a girl, but because I know only too well what a minefield it can be growing up as a girl these days, with all the conflicting messages, unattainable demands and pressures coming at us from every direction. I felt under-equipped to guide my daughter through it and help her to retain a healthy confidence in who she is, and translate that into positive feelings about her body. How could I, as her mum, counteract all that?
Since then, N has grown into a funny, affectionate, bright and beautiful little girl, and is joined by a baby sister who is equally wonderful. I also know from taking to others that L as a boy is likely to face comparable, if slightly different messages about his body.
So how do we guide our children through it? How do we help them to sort the positive messages from the less helpful, and teach them healthy attitudes towards food and towards themselves?
Be a positive role model
Children learn a lot more from what we do than what we say. Try not to talk negatively about your body in front of your child. Don’t be the mum who is always on a diet, eating different foods than the rest of the family.
Make physical activity a natural part of family life
Develop habits like walking to school or nursery if it isn’t too far, or to the corner shop. Allow the extra time it takes for them to walk (once they can) rather than pushing them in a buggy. Make outdoor play a regular part of your lives.
I have to admit that at this time of year I find it tempting to stay indoors doing my favourite crafts, baking and reading stories with the children, but I always find that we all feel better for a walk in the fresh air. By letting them walk rather than being carried or pushed, they are engaging with the world rather than being passive observers, as well as getting active and developing their physical skills. And if the weather is really miserable, get moving indoors with Rainy Day Mum’s suggestions for songs to sing and dance to!
Be aware of the messages contained in the stories you read your children, and the television programmes they watch
Since having children I have really noticed how many of the “baddies” in children’s literature are defined by their looks – they are nearly always ugly, and often overweight. And isn’t the fairytale princess always beautiful? The prince handsome? Notice these things, be aware of them – personally I think it would be impossible to avoid them, but I do try to neutralise them with other stories celebrating courage, integrity, kindness – the things I want my children to value in themselves and others. I also think it’s important to be prepared to discuss these things as the children get older – develop a questioning mind, in ourselves and our children, a mind that doesn’t blindly accept the messages we are presented with. Teach your child to be a discerning reader / viewer.
Avoid labelling food good or bad, healthy or unhealthy
Instead, teach the children about balance. Since someone introduced this idea to me, I like saying to L and N “we need to eat all different kinds of food” – I try to help them understand that one kind of food won’t provide all that our body needs – so fruit all by itself won’t keep us healthy any more than chocolate would. Variety is the key – I love Rainy Day Mum’s breakfast ideas, keeping breakfast time interesting and varied.
Encourage your children to eat to appetite
I know I find this particularly hard – you prepare a meal, it’s beautifully balanced, home cooked, nourishing – and they’re not hungry. There’s not much I find more frustrating as a mum. I am working on not letting it show! Everyone has their own way of dealing with mealtimes, and it’s important to be consistent – so develop a strategy that sits well with your parenting style. But encouraging your child to eat to appetite is a good rule of thumb.
Don’t stop giving them a food they don’t accept right away
When L was younger, he took a long time to accept fruit in its whole form. He would eat purred fruit, or things containing fruit, but completely rejected the fruit itself in its natural state! All the evidence seemed to suggest that I should keep presenting him with it, not make a big deal of this or turn it into a battle of wills, but keep expecting him to eat it. I put fruit on L’s plate, and then took it away untouched, for over a year before he tried it. It was worth it – he loves fruit now and will ask for it – but at the time it seemed as though he was never going to eat it, and it did feel like a huge waste of money and effort for a very long time. There are still some things the children won’t eat – salad leaves, for example, but I carry on putting a few on their plate in hope.
Eat together as a family
I added this one with a sense of guilt, because we don’t. Well, not every day. At the weekends we do sit down together on a Sunday, and during the week I eat lunch with whichever children are at home.
In an ideal world, we would all sit down together at every meal. I know that in our house life is busy, and it often doesn’t happen. Mornings are a whirl of activity and evenings difficult to co-ordinate. But I do believe that sitting down to eat together when we can will give us the chance to model healthy eating attitudes, as well as other things we’d like the children to pick up, like table manners and conversation. Eating together, and eating the same food, gives the message that eating healthy, balanced meals is the norm, and again, they learn more from our example than from anything we could say.
Don’t use food to reward or punish
If we use food, particularly sweet treats, as a reward or incentive, or if we withhold treats as punishment, we are teaching children to link food with feelings. We are also setting them up to reward (or punish) themselves with food as they grow up.
Don’t go to extremes
This is about balance again. If we make “treat” foods forbidden and exciting to our children, we are not teaching them to enjoy them in moderation.
Watch your language
Research has shown that children who score most highly on scales of body image satisfaction come from families who do not comment on their physical appearance. This is something that has stuck in my mind because it almost seems counter-intuitive. Whilst we all know that we shouldn’t comment negatively on other people’s appearance, wouldn’t you think that telling our children they are beautiful would boost their self esteem?
Well, no. In fact, all we are doing is telling them that their appearance is what matters to us, giving them the message that physical attractiveness is important. We do the same if we comment on other people’s appearance – the girl in their class with the lovely long curls, the boy with the sparkling dark eyes. Or when our children overhear us compliment a friend who has lost weight. Or bemoan the fact that we have gained a few pounds ourselves.
Instead, we need to focus on things that our children can work on and feel proud of – the bravery in going into a new or scary situation, the concentration given to a task, the perseverance in mastering a new skill, the kindness in sharing a toy with their friend. This is something I have to work on every day – I think my children are beautiful, and it is very natural to want to tell them all the time – but it is far better for their self esteem not to focus on the way they look.
I hope you find these ideas helpful. I think the most important thing we can do as mums is to be aware of our own attitudes. We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t influenced by the society we live in, but by being critical and aware we can help mitigate those pressures in the lives of our girls (and boys!).