Raising a Child in a World of Dieting Part II

It rails against everything parents know to say less is more in raising children.

The time and energy spent managing the success and future of a child leaves little room for the child's personal growth and exploration. Forget any concept of small successes and failures: these kids are praised moment to moment as if they invent electricity every other day.

No measure of success truly matters because it is the norm. In fact, many communities just create endless rounds of success for kids these days--trophies for everyone--and not a whit of criticism or room for improvement.

Perfectionism has become the expected way of life. Difficulty translates into difference. No one, parents included, can tolerate failure. Ever. 

For readers of this blog and, for that matter, any literature about eating disorders, this mindset will be very familiar. It describes to a tee one central personality trait for people with eating disorders. Motivation gone awry turns into overwhelmingly impossible standards.  Internal drive without reason or purpose makes people need a way to opt out of completely unrealistic goals. Life is too hard when the expectations are so unreasonable.

Instead kids find perfection another way, namely through manipulating food and weight. 

Parents also struggle to accept imperfections in their children. Just because each kid gets a trophy doesn't mean they're all equally good at the sport. Adults, even those taken by fantasies of wildly successful prodigy, see the writing on the wall sooner or later. Accepting that reality and realizing their child is just another imperfect person are not easy pills to swallow. 

When faced with this reality, parents can turn to food and weight just as much as children. The illusion of creating a perfect child because of correct eating and weight maintenance becomes very alluring. Part of that can be positive reinforcement by adults who approve of a child's body type, but an overweight child can cause concern in adults and lead parents to use weight loss as a goal with their child, as a way to perfect their offspring. 

Establishing food restriction and weight loss as central to a child's identity severely limits their personal growth and development as well. At a time when a child is learning about their place in the world, focusing on something so limiting and narrow as weight can quickly derail their maturing selves. 

In this realm, the goal of parents is to reinforce the personal qualities of that child, psychological, emotional and physical, while protecting the child from the collective forces trying to focus family energy on food and weight. A consistent message from parents can balance those outside pressures and ensure the child knows the alternatives that exist in understanding oneself. 

It can be very difficult for parents to brush off outside comments about their child's physical appearance, especially when critical. Aggressively defending one's child against those adults who make comments only gives their thoughts more credence. The key is to discredit their thoughts while always presenting another way to see the world. 

Consistency, clarity and balance can, over time, allow the child to learn different ways to balance food and weight in a different world philosophy. The idea is not to eliminate those messages that reflect body and weight obsession since parents don't have that kind of power. It's rather to provide an alternative that so that the child  knows there are more important things to life.


Raising a Child in a World of Dieting Part I

In the next two posts, I will switch gears to talk about parenting children about food and weight. Adult attitudes towards these topics are central to a child's understanding of self-perception and of her place in the world. It is one thing for adults to struggle with the role of weight in determining self-worth, but it's something entirely different to saddle a child with those thoughts from the get-go. 

It has become fully accepted that weight is one of the primary means to judge others and oneself. The bias against those who are overweight--and the similar overestimation of those who are underweight--runs rampant in our society. The less discussed caveat to the prejudice is that being overweight or underweight always reflects overeating or dieting, respectively.

Laden with judgment, this reflection represents the implied battle between gluttony vs. restraint and the basis for judgment on our moral character. 

The sad truth of our culture today is that changing this prejudice doesn't seem to be on our radar. Much of the writing about the general increase in obesity and eating disorders reflects changes in accessible food, the plague of dieting, acceptable body type and the drive for thinness, but these cultural changes don't stop us from fully believing the overarching bias. 

This attitude has now seeped its way into judging a parent's ability to raise a child. The increased interest in parenting techniques and the concept that children are a reflection of parents' success make weight an easy target for judgment. Parents of thin children gloat while hose of overweight children shrink away in shame. These tendencies all seem to ignore the general well being of the child. 

Parents heed the fear of an overweight child by focusing on the child's eating right away. Starting with parents' obsession with a baby's feeding patterns, they monitor food intake throughout childhood, first for health and wellness but gradually, with the communal bias in mind, for weight maintenance. The end result is that parents know they will be held responsible for any change in their child's weight. 

It's easy to see how the collective judgment can let a child's psychological development go awry. Childrens' bodies change constantly. As expert pediatricians explain, growth comes in fits and spurts, ups and downs. The message for a parent is to be ready for anything without expectations and certainly without judgment.

Varying growth will undoubtedly include changes in weight. At several stages of development, it is common for children to gain more weight: babies until they start walking and pre-puberty, for example.

Interestingly, some children can be underweight at those ages as well; however, others are likely to praise an underweight child rather than worry about adequate nutrition. Educating ourselves about a child's development--information easily at our fingertips--seems more valuable than judging a child and her parents based on a number on a scale. 

Falling into the trap of judgment sends a message to that child: there is something wrong with you. It isn't necessary to praise everything a child does, but it is imperative to allow her to believe she is capable, that she is not battling against an indelible mark against her. 

The clear step for parents is to figure out how to manage food, weight and health in a child's formative years based on the child's wellness, not the arbitrary worries of a community. Although the ill effects of outside judgment may be hard to bear, heeding those warnings is essential so as not to confuse or derail a child's psychological growth. 

The next post will address these concerns and give practical advice about how to monitor a child's well being.