It’s fascinating to me that one of the first questions asked after a baby is born is, “How much does she weigh?” Why is this of such interest? The kid just got here and we’re already preoccupied with her weight! I wonder if it’s because we really don’t know much else about this brand-new human being. What will her personality be like? What kinds of things will she like to do? What’s INSIDE is still a mystery, and so all we have to go on is what she looks like on the outside. Hopefully, as this little individual shows us what she’s all about, the people around her will respond by paying more attention to who she really is and not keep their attention limited to what’s on the outside.
If a child’s caregivers continue to stay focused on her external appearance, it is not a good recipe for healthy development. Sure, we want kids to feel good about themselves, and it’s important for them to feel satisfied with their appearance, but when we place too much emphasis on how they look, even with praise, that can cause children to obsess on their image and worry that they must always measure up. In our society, “measuring up” when it comes to appearance can be very hard to achieve! A review of recent research shows that kids as young as FIVE are dissatisfied with their appearance! How sad for a five-year-old to have to stress about that. Kids can learn that they may be judged by their appearance even before they hit school.
Unfortunately, ideas formed in childhood can last a lifetime if they are not challenged. If a child has learned to link self-worth with achieving or maintaining a certain image, he or she will likely develop a fragile sense of self as well as unhealthy habits. Disorders linked to poor body image can lead to serious mental and physical health issues. Sometimes adults think that if a child is sufficiently unhappy with his body, this will lead him to make positive changes that will result in a “better body” and a happier child. Nope. This doesn’t work. If a child is made to dislike or resent her appearance, she is actually less likely to make healthier choices. It’s very hard to take care of something you hate. If you would like to see your child make healthier lifestyle choices, help her appreciate her body instead.
Hopefully, most of us can recognize that by placing too much emphasis on a kid’s looks, we aren’t doing her any favors. But if you are a parent/teacher/aunt/uncle or anyone of influence in a child’s life, it’s equally as important to know that if you are very focused on or critical of your OWN appearance, that can be seriously damaging as well. If you are a parent, you are your child’s first teacher. Research shows that five-to-eight year-olds who think their mothers are unhappy with their appearance are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. Even if a mother never makes a critical comment about her child’s appearance, that child can still develop negative feelings about his or her body simply by witnessing the mother’s attitude toward herself.
But if you are a parent…there’s good news! As mentioned above, you are your child’s first teacher! Your ability to have a positive impact on your child’s self-image is just as powerful. If you are someone with a little person in your life, whether it’s a student, grandchild, niece or nephew, you can influence the next generation to appreciate the skin they’re in.
My friend Elana has five children under the age of eight and tells me that she sometimes looks at them in disbelief, wondering, "Am I really in charge of this family?" I love that she is so candid about her mothering experience. I also love that she is such an awesome mother. When I need a wise yet realistic perspective on parenthood, she's my address.
The other day, I asked Elana what she does to handle jealousy between her children. She shared a phrase that is often repeated in her household:
"Different kids, different stuff."
It's simple but inarguable. Different kids will have different privileges, different duties, different talents...and different bodies. It's a fact, and the sooner a child internalizes it, the easier things will be. This brings me to Tip #1:
1. Respect and Appreciate Our Differences.
Some people are tall and some are short. Some people are large and some are small. If we were all supposed to look identical, we would have been created that way. We are meant to look different from each other on the outside just as we are unique on the inside. If a child complains, “I’m so small!” or “I’m too big!”, resist the urge to say, “Oh no, you’re not!” or “You’re not too small/big - you’re beautiful!” Likewise, don’t jump in to offer some sort of strategy to change her appearance. This reinforces that there is something wrong with being small or big, or whatever attribute she is complaining about, and that there’s only one way to “look good”. Kids are smart. They know what they look like in reference to other kids. Don’t deny the reality of the situation. Rather, help your child accept the fact that people come in different shapes and sizes and that that’s ok. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Chatting with Elana reminded me of a conversation we'd had several years ago, when her large-for-his age toddler had been getting comments about size. I remember the steeliness in her tone as she told people, "Do not make fun of my son." I'm sure they heard it too. Here's Tip #2:
2. Watch the Talk.
Do not talk negatively about others’ appearances and do not tolerate such talk from others. If you hear negative talk about someone else’s looks, redirect it, even if the comment was made jokingly. Make it clear that teasing related to weight, size, or any aspect of appearance will not be tolerated. This type of teasing can cause very real damage to a child’s self-perception and can have long-term effects. Also, remember to not talk disparagingly about your own appearance, regardless of your own personal opinion of it. You are your child’s most influential example.
Elana and I agree that life with kids means life with body talk. From the moment a child is born, you're busy with feedings and diaper changes. This progresses to potty training, tummy aches, runny noses, scraped knees... you can't avoid it! And this is good news! Because it means that there are plenty of opportunities to use Tip #3:
3. Discuss the Awesomeness of Your Body.
Our bodies are amazing! They can run and jump and hop and hug! They get hungry when they need food and they get full when we feed them! They fight germs! They heal! They grow! We can use our hands to help people, our mouths to say kind words, our eyes to appreciate our beautiful world. Talk about it. Help your child understand that her body is valuable regardless of what it happens to look like. And while you're at it, model body respect by taking care of your own body and letting your child know about it. Show her that you rest when you're tired, drink when you're thirsty, stop eating when you are satisfied, and take time off to recuperate when you're sick. Treat your body with the care and consideration you’d give to a good friend. We only get one body!
And finally, Tip #4:
4. Be Widespread with Your Praise.
Look for ways to help your child appreciate what she has to offer independent of appearance.Sure, you can tell your child that she's pretty, but don't stick to the externals. Kids need to know that they are worth a whole lot more than their looks. Look for opportunities to allow their strengths to shine. Set your child up with a challenging task and praise her determination. Catch her sharing and compliment her for her generosity. Send her on an errand and point out how capable she is. Watch her draw and appreciate her creativity. Don’t limit your praise to things that make your child feel merely “looked at” rather than truly seen.
When a child feels good about herself, she is more likely to take good care of herself without becoming obsessive about it. If you’ve been spending too much time fretting about your child presenting the perfect image, focus instead on helping her recognize her own innate worth. Remember that she can’t feel good enough on the outside until she feels good enough on the inside – and remember that her most powerful role model is you!