The other day I was standing in line at a cafe behind a young mother with a little girl in a stroller. It took her ages to read the minimal menu.
“Is any of this low-fat?” she asked, waving her hands over the display of delicious-looking baked goods.
“Um, not really,” the girl replied
she sighed. “I didn’t think so.
“Roasted carrot with honey,” replied the girl behind the counter. “It’s super good.”
“Hmm… is the honey in the soup or was it drizzled over it?
“No, it’s in the soup. But I don’t think it’s too much.”
“Yeah, but sugar is sugar, right?” She laughed nervously. “Never mind. I’m just taking the toast to go. Does the peanut butter have sugar in it?”
“Um, I think a little, yes.”
“Oh,” she sounded disappointed. “Okay, I’ll just have buttered toast and a latte. A fat-free latte.”
“Okay,” the girl rang the cash register.
“Oh no, wait, wait, wait,” the woman said excitedly, as if she were about to avert a terrible catastrophe. “No butter, no butter. Just dry toast.”
“No jam or… anything?”
“No nothing. You do understand that the latte is fat-free, right?” She double-checked.
I watched as she paid and rolled her stroller away. She was petite and thin by any standards; If I looked like her, I certainly wouldn’t worry so much about the peanut butter. I had to wonder if her daughter would grow up considering dry toast a sufficient meal and afraid of the horrible natural sugars in honey; if she spent agonizing minutes perusing menus, considering each dish dangerous and fattening, choosing not to eat rather than making a choice that would plunge her into a turmoil of guilt and regret; if she grew up thinking no matter how good looking she could always look better if she was skinnier.
We are usually aware that we are setting an example for our children in the way we speak and act; We don’t insult them, we say please and thank you, we try not to comment negatively on people’s looks. And we’re so careful because we know kids are a little spongy; they absorb what they see and they internalize it, and so they learn how to be in the world. This is certainly true when it comes to food and eating habits.
No problem you think. I don’t have an eating disorder, I would never tell my daughter she weighs too much or tell her not to eat treats occasionally because it makes her fat or put her on a diet. I will teach her to love her body and who she is inside and out.
And no doubt you will. But as parents continue to discover, actions speak louder than words when it comes to young children. When you “watch what you eat,” your child is guaranteed to be watching that you are watching what you eat. So much of what children learn takes place at the subconscious level. Though you may not put your stress about eating certain foods or amounts of food into words, it will not go unnoticed by your little one if every meal makes you feel anxious and guilty. And if you allow your child to have what they want while denying themselves, your conflicting messages will be confusing and distressing, and if you are unable to fully understand, your child might very well be mimicking the behavior , it sees.
That might explain why some studies have found girls as young as 4 and 5 with disordered eating habits. She’ll notice if you set her a plate of food for lunch and sit down with nothing for you. She’ll hear you say to the host at a birthday party, “The cake looks delicious, but no sugar for me until I shed those 10 pounds!” She’ll watch the change in your face as you go from enjoying a cookie to panicking about the calories you’ve just burned.
There is a lot of pressure on women to always diet and additional pressure on mothers to lose weight after having children. It’s hard to be insensitive to that. And if you have more serious eating and body image issues, chances are they are deep and will take time to resolve. That is understandable.
Be aware of what you are projecting and remember that you are paying attention. As they grow, your children must fight off all of the unhealthy and negative messages about their weight and appearance that are so prevalent in the media. To do this, they need a very solid and confident attitude towards eating and eating. You have the option to provide this for them. And in doing so, it not only helps them, but also you.
Thanks to Strenl Guy