I was walking alongside a caregiver telling a child that if she didn’t eat at least half her sandwich at lunch that day, she’d have to eat it when she got home.
And while waiting to get flu shots, I overheard a mom tell her son that due to his weight he now has to make healthy choices and exercise.
There is a status quo for raising healthy kids. Get them to eat healthy foods. Make sure they exercise. It’s all about getting them to “do” healthy activities.
But this misses the mark time and time again. And here’s why.
The doing can bypass listening
I understand why it’s tempting to make kids eat or nag them to make healthy choices. But when we do this, we actually teach them not to listen to their body. In so many words we are saying — it doesn’t’ matter what you are feeling do what I say anyway.
In other words, when we solely focus on doing it increases the risk kids will disconnect from their bodies. Problem is, their body holds all the answers for the doing. When we can’t find the real answer then another problem is created like food battles and weight issues. And guess who becomes the bad guy?
The child’s body.
Listening leads to appreciating
There is a reason kids don’t eat “this” or too much of “that.” Maybe a parent finds her child isn’t eating her lunch because she’s still full from snack time. Maybe a big eater is dealing with stress at school so he turns to food for comfort. Or he’s going through the adolescent growth spurt and is more hungry.
In every one of these scenarios, the body is trying to tell these kids something important and parents can help them discover what that is.
In fact, our bodies are talking to use all the time. In the case of physical health, it talks in the form of hunger, fullness, satisfaction, dislike, low or high energy, alertness, and general mood. Emotional health comes in the way of feelings. We welcome the positive emotions but what about the difficult feelings of anxiety, shame, disappointment, loneliness, and anger? We want those to go away but they provide vital information too.
As Karen Koenig says so eloquently in her book Food and Feelings: “Feelings are the portal to your inner world, the key to your deepest yearnings and desires, the compass that guides you through life.”
Appreciating leads to self-care (but you need the listening first)
The research is pretty clear that body appreciation results in healthier habits, while body dissatisfaction doesn’t. I used to think this came straight from the appreciation piece, but just telling kids to love or appreciate their body doesn’t work. It’s simply more of telling them what to do.
We teach kids how to appreciate their bodies by encouraging them to listen and use that feedback to create a healthy and happy life. This is what leads to body appreciation and the years and years of self-care we want for them. So instead of fighting kids with more doing, we can encourage them to decode what their bodies are trying to tell them. Being aware of what is going on with your body is called interoception and it is being recognized as an important potential link between body image and health.
For example, low energy might mean they need to move. A tummyache might signal stress or too many goodies. Disappointment helps them figure out what is important to them. Fear of food might simply mean they need more information and experience with food.
This is so powerful because children get to experience the benefits for themselves. And once they learn the language of the body — and how it enhances their lives in every single way — they’ll never go back to second-guessing it or thinking it’s the problem.
Check out Maryann’s books, all sold on Amazon. The book she’s currently working on is aimed to help tween girls understand, listen and appreciate their changing body.