My mother promised me a new wardrobe, a car and a trip to Hawaii -- all of which I would earn if I lost weight and got thin. With my dream vacation dangling in front of me, you'd think I'd have raced to the gym and then to the travel agent. Instead, I flew to the kitchen to binge on any food that wasn't nailed down.
Mom begged and bribed; she offered financial incentives and emotional collateral. She dragged me to Weight Watchers, Jack LaLanne and the diet pill doc. My mother loved me so much that she would have done anything to hand me the world on a silver platter -- filled with low-fat cottage cheese and melba toast. Yet, all her efforts seemed to backfire and I found solace in the refrigerator.
It's not as if I liked being chubby. As much as mom wanted me to lose weight, deep down, I wanted it more. In my prayers, I begged God to shed the weight and for decades, every birthday wish was the same: I wanted to be thin.
Now, as a mom of twentysomethings myself, I understand how powerless a parent feels when they can't mold their child into someone the child doesn't want (or isn't ready) to be. So what is our alternative? Do we let it go and suffer in silence, do we say something, do we create a rigorous action plan for our kids to implement?
Here are five tips for parents that may not be reflected on the scale but can be measured in the quality of the relationship:
1. If you're spending so much time obsessing about your child's weight or body size, then you probably have some unfinished business of your own.
Instead of obsessing about your child, step back and take a look at your own issues. More often than not, parents who harp on their child's weight have baggage of their own that they are projecting onto their daughter or son. Work through your own deep-seated issues and you will see where you are over-identifying with your child, so you can separate out what's them and what's you.
2. Keep the door open for future conversations. Once the door is shut, it might stay shut for a long time.
If you are too judgmental and critical of your child's situation, you might be creating shame that forces him or her to retreat. In this society, your child might already have developed a negative self-image that is magnified every time they look in the mirror; you don't need to add to their feeling of "not good enough." If you are kind and loving and don't bring up this topic often (or maybe don't bring it up at all -- let them come to you), then you have a chance at future conversations when they are ready to hear you and want to come to you for advice.
3. Education is fine; sermons are not.
Many strong-willed young people have the tendency to push back harder when they are pushed hard. If you come on too strongly, your child may rebel and make you the "bad guy," creating a power struggle in which you are both determined to win. Yet, we all need education. Nutrition, body chemistry and menu planning are evolving all the time and it doesn't hurt to casually throw out a tip or two to your child about food choices and behaviors. If they are curious to know more, share more. But don't get on a soapbox.
4. See your child in all their facets, not just their body size.
Your child is a rich, complex individual who is made of a lot more than their physical appearance. Each person has a unique body, mind, heart, spirit, and they have combined all these aspects to create their own personality and their own way of being in the world. We do our children an injustice to make their figure or physique an overriding part of their identity. Spend time reinforcing all the beautiful qualities in your child and nurturing all of them. They get enough messages from the diet industry about what it deems important -- be your child's cheerleader, and someone they can count on for unconditional love and acceptance.
5. Be careful what you wish for.
Kids these days know how to drop weight. They have probably seen ads for quick weight-loss schemes or starvation diets, or maybe they learned from friends how to binge and purge or how to over-exercise for hours each day. If you're all about "thin" and your child is busy seeking your approval, they can probably satisfy you. But at what price? Instead of telling children to be thin, tell them to be healthy for whatever their body size may be.
In short, if we love ourselves -- all of ourselves -- we will teach our children to love themselves. If we obsess about this thigh or that hip, if we become self-effacing over a wrinkle, our children are likely to pick up on those messages. Think carefully about your values and how you choose to model those values. Take a look at your own eating behaviors and your relationship with food and body size -- and ask yourself how you will feel if your child takes on those same attitudes.
Remember that regardless of what you say or preach, most children are scrutinizing their parents' actions so they can behave "just like them" when they grow up. Maybe it's time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we gain if our obsession with our child's weight sends them right back to the kitchen for comfort.