Laurie Sanders
April 27, 2013 8:00 am

Children are becoming deeply dissatisfied with their physical bodies at an early age, and the innocence of childhood seems to be getting interrupted before they even get a sense of themselves. Sometimes it feels like we are powerless to change the role of the media in the lives of young people, but there are some fundamental ways we can influence the way our children grow up thinking about food – and their bodies.

It seems so easy, doesn’t it? We reward good behavior and punish the bad. But what happens when we use food to reward a child for behaving well – and what message does that give about that food? Doesn’t it immediately make food an emotional thing instead of an instinctive one, as it should be?

Young children want to please their parents; if they are told that good girls get chocolate and that naughty girls get none, surely they come to crave the reward associated with ‘good girl’ behavior. I know from personal experience that certain foods invoke feelings of guilt, almost as though I am not deserving of them, such as eating chocolate. Why do I feel bad when I eat chocolate?! Surely I should be able to eat sweet foods without a torrent of emotional BS. On the flip side, I remember times in my life when I have felt those hunger pangs and deliberately ignored them, sometimes because I didn’t believe I deserved to eat lunch because I had eaten ‘too much’ the night before. Where do these punishment/reward ideas stem from? I do not believe these feelings are right, or normal, and these emotions are certainly not something we should be teaching kids from a young age. Using food to reward good behavior gives that particular food untold power, it makes that food the holy-grail and something that will always be longed for, because of its ‘feel-good’ factor and the memories it evokes.

Humans are born with amazing instincts of exactly what they need. They cry when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Some kids grow quickly, others slowly. Neither is right or wrong. Then, all of a sudden we start imprinting our ideas on those little minds. Mom steps onto the scales every morning, and talks about her fat tummy whilst drinking coffee with friends. A cookie jar is offered around and the women say “oh no thank you, I don’t want to get fat!” These words, these images, are remembered and stored.

Before long, children are sitting down to family meals and being told to “eat two more mouthfuls” or they cannot leave the table. Remember that? Remember the loathing you felt as that food moved around your mouth? You said you were full… but now you have to eat more. Maybe in the future, you’ll get to control your own food choices, but how will you gauge when you’re full if you’ve never been able to stop when you wanted to?

What do these repeated actions do to a child’s perceptions of food over the years? Cookies “make you fat” – but you have to be a “good girl” to get them. Talk about a skewed logic.

Along the same line is when we tell children they can’t have anything to eat because it isn’t meal time. Who the hell invented ‘meal times’, anyway? I’m sure some kids do want to eat all day sometimes. I do that. Usually it lasts one or two days and then I’m back to my regular routine, but I would be less than impressed if someone kept telling me I couldn’t eat when I was hungry!

As a parent to two young children, and someone who has struggled a lot with food and body hang-ups, I have found it so hard to ‘let go’ when it comes to eating habits. I have a daughter and a son who are completely opposite body shapes. They both get offered the same foods at each meal and they usually choose to eat different proportions of the meat or veggies- but my son just has a smaller frame at the moment. Sure, sometimes my kids eat too much chocolate and they get a tummy ache, but so do a lot of adults. Maybe more of us would know when to stop if we’d had the chance to learn about these things when we were kids.

I believe we need to stop thinking of food as a way to encourage certain behavior, because making food an emotional decision early on, could have a big influence further down the line. And secondly, I believe we need to learn to love ourselves regardless of dress size. Children are watching us and learning. Take the emphasis off of weight, and teach children about health. We all know how good we feel when we eat nourishing foods, and children learn that very quickly when given the chance. Hopefully we can help more children grow up with a healthy relationship with their bodies, and their food.

Featured image via Life of Laurie

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