It’s not every day I get to watch a TV show that chronicles how a child is fed and then also shows how that translates to adult eating habits. But that show is here and if you haven’t heard about it it’s, This is Us. It follows a twin brother and sister and their adopted same-age brother. They are in their late thirties living their complicated lives and the episodes include extensive flashbacks to their childhood.
I think there is so much to glean from this show in terms of raising children, especially how we learn to relate to food at early ages. We can also see the emotional dynamics and how children can come to view things very differently from their parents. Parents may have one intention, but all that matters are the beliefs children internalize.
About Kate Then and Now
Growing up, Kate was bigger than average and loved to eat. Afraid she would develop a weight problem, her mom often fed her differently from her brothers. There’s one scene where Kate is eating fruit for breakfast while her brothers get Fruit Loops. In other scenes, her mom tries to steer her to healthier choices like the time Kate asks for more cookies and her mom says “we already had two, why don’t we cut up an apple?” (Kate doesn’t look pleased). On the other hand, Kate’s dad is more indulgent taking her for daily ice cream trips and is never able to say no to her where food is concerned.
Kate is also bullied about her weight from other kids. She doesn’t talk to her mom about this but she does ask her dad about how she looks. Her dad always says she’s beautiful and perfect. She is secretly jealous of her thin mom as she looks at the size of clothing she wears (large) versus her mom’s (small).
Although her parents don’t mention her weight, being fed differently, getting bullied, and being nagged about food sends a message that she’s not okay the way she is. Kate is developing shame about her body and doesn’t have anyone to talk to. While her father is sweet and obviously loves her unconditionally, he never asks her how she feels about her body.
As an adult, Kate has food issues and struggles with her weight. To be quite honest, her weight and what she does or doesn’t eat is the focal point of her life.
My Advice to Kate’s Parents
First off, I don’t mean at all to blame these parents. Most of us would not know what to do in this situation (plus this was in the 70-80s!). The first thing I would say is that the whole family would benefit from structured eating. Eating regular meals at the table and regular times without eating in between. There is no need to feed Kate differently or have her stop before she’s full. All children benefit from being encouraged to follow their hunger and fullness.
Next would be how to handle goodies. Kate and her brothers would benefit from knowing when sweets will happen. Instead of daily ice cream trips maybe the whole family could go on Fridays. Sweets can be served at other predictable times, so they lose the luster and power. And bonding time between Dad and Kate can be nonfood related (maybe food sometimes but not all the time). This would help Kate focus less on sweets and learn how to eat them as part of a balanced diet.
Research suggests that eating problems are more likely to occur when there is a strain in the mother-daughter relationship (Kate and her mom are not close). With food structure in place, there is no need to nag Kate about food. The mom could take that energy and instead spend quality time with Kate, working hard to keep the doors of communication open. Practicing active listening — and not just saying she’s beautiful or fine– could help Kate get her feelings out. This would give her mom the chance to talk about her own childhood struggles, making Kate feel less alone. I would also ask the mom to discuss how people come in all shapes and sizes, emphasizing the importance of being healthy, not thin. As a result, Kate would feel like she could go to her mom — instead of food — to help her when she struggles.
Last but not least are Kate’s interests. Both her brothers are involved in activities such as football and school. Kate likes to sing but feels inferior to her mom who is an amazing singer (she’s played by Mandy Moore after all). Spending time exploring Kate’s passions could help her develop a sense purpose and a more holistic way of viewing herself.
Would Kate be Different?
I can’t say for sure how things would be different if her parents took my advice. But what I do know — and what this show illustrates — is that trying to fix a child’s body with food only makes food and weight more of an issue. But focusing on developing a healthy relationship with food and one’s body helps children accept themselves, learn a balanced way of eating, and realize there is more to life than weight and food. As a result, children who eventually become adults, are more likely to grow into a size that’s right for them as well as take care of themselves both emotionally and physically.
Do you watch the show? What do you think?
I’d also give Kate’s parents a copy of my book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food