By the time they reach middle school, your kids probably know more about you than you do about them. Think about it: While you’ve been juggling home, work, parenting, and squeezing in whatever private life you can around the edges, your kids have been watching you intently to learn about the world and how to live in it. (Or, in the case of more critical adolescents, how not to live in it.)
So when it comes to talking to your kid about their weight, the best advice may be: Don’t give a talk. Or rather, don’t make too big a production of it.
Lead By Example
Before you say or do anything, ask yourself: What are we doing as a family for our own health and weight?
If what your kids mostly see are your cycles of dieting and bingeing—or if they see you snacking and watching TV at home, but never see how hard you’re working at the gym—they may not have a complete picture of what healthy living is.
If your child’s weight has become a concern—or better still, before it gets to that point—look for ways to get nutrition into your family meals and be active as a family. Here are a couple of great ways to start:
- Let kids help plan and prepare family meals. Challenge them to include all different colors of fruits and vegetables and to try new ones that they may not have encountered.
- Take advantage of opportunities for family outings, like neighborhood walks, hikes, or bike rides. Play basketball or soccer as a family. Play tag. Have a dance off, and don’t worry if your kids know the moves better than you do. (Laughter is a good workout, too).
- Do chores together, too. If time is an issue, get the kids busy helping you out with the things you’ve got to do anyway. If they’re old enough, have them carry laundry, scrub the tub, or do the dishes. Younger kids can help pick up (and with the right musical accompaniment, they may even be persuaded to treat it as a game).
Whatever your approach, be sure everyone in the family takes part. Singling out one child over another can make more than one kid feel left out. And all kids (and adults) benefit from eating healthy and being active.
Listen, Don’t Lecture
If you do say something, try asking questions over giving advice. Ask about school, friends, activities. Whatever you need to do to get them talking. It’s easy for eating to become an emotional issue. Giving kids the skills and the confidence to talk about their problems is a positive step toward helping them deal with them without linking stress and food.
Speaking of communication: Take an honest look at how you talk and act when it comes to your own weight and health habits, and those of your spouse. Using words like “fat” and “thin”—even to describe how you’re feeling about yourself—can lead kids to make judgments about their own bodies. When you’re talking about what you’d like to accomplish when it comes to your own health, try to use words like “healthy” and “fit” instead.
Tap Into Some Healthy Help
If your child’s issues with weight cause concern for his or her immediate safety or well-being, don’t go it alone. A doctor or pediatrician can tell you how serious the issue is, and give advice about the healthiest way to phase in changes. A pediatric dietician can help figure out what specific nutritional needs your child has, and how to address them. And a child or adolescent counselor can help your child work through any emotional or psychological issues that may be a factor.
Through it all, strive to be hopeful and encouraging, and keep a positive attitude. Celebrate the good choices your child is making, and recognize the joys of being healthy as a family.
Resist the urge, however, to link encouragement to appearance or readings on the scale. As anyone who has struggled with weight can tell you, reversals tend to occur. It’s better to put the emphasis on healthy behaviors and feeling empowered.
Finally, take some comfort in knowing that it’s not all on you. Children want to be healthy and happy, but they may need the occasional nudge. If you provide healthy examples, a caring shoulder to lean on, and plenty of positive encouragement, your kids will do a lot of the hard work—even if they never really come around to doing the laundry.