Carrie R. King, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist
Marissa Krupat, Registered Associate MFT
Marissa Krupat, Registered Associate MFT
Raising Girls To Be Women Who
Love Food and Their Bodies
Drs. Carrie R. King and Suzanne J. Smith
My mother was always on a diet and complaining about how much bigger she got after having kids. My Grandmother always pushed me to, “Eat! Eat!” and then spent dinner talking about my “fat” cousin Tali. My father wouldn’t buy me a bikini at age 5, and I knew why. My mom doted on my “skinny” brother, talking constantly about her battle to get food to stick to his ribs, and I envied the attention and his size. My father imitated blowing up a balloon whenever I asked for seconds.
Consider for a moment how these messages absorb into the skin, burrow paths to the heart, and make clear indentations on body image and self-worth. How would these messages continue to inform how you see yourself, what you eat, and how you feel when you do? Is it possible that you consciously or unconsciously transmit these messages to your children?
You may be very careful when talking to your children about food, eating, and their appearance, but then slip when talking about yourself. We can be very cognizant of avoiding the words “good” and “bad” when we talk about foods with our children, and then say aloud when we have a handful of chips, “I’m cheating.” We inadvertently reinforce the idea that there is a right and public way to eat, and a wrong and secret way to eat. Our seemingly light comments linking our own behaviors to our own appearance can be damaging: “I better stop there or I won’t look good in my dress tomorrow.”
Growing up in a culture focused on beauty, thinness, and dieting is a challenge for all of us. As parents, it’s important to take the time to reflect on our own feelings about our bodies and the messages we’ve internalized through the years. Think back about how your own parents talked about eating and appearance. Recall your personal insecurities with your body as you grew up. Maybe you were focused on flabby arms, skinny legs, or simply not fitting into the uniform the way the other kids did. These messages about our bodies from childhood and adolescence can run deep and affect us in unconscious ways.
Explore the thoughts you have as an adult about your body and eating. Most of us are highly critical about our own bodies, focusing on areas we believe are imperfect or “trouble spots.” Notice how you talk to yourself in your own quiet mind. Are you encouraging and complimentary about your body? Or are you critical and blaming? When you think about exercising, are you focused on punishing yourself for an indulgent dessert the night before? When you think about eating, are you focused on how the food will taste or how it will add weight or worsen your “trouble spots”?
Parents who develop their own awareness of these inner thoughts on body image and eating are better able to filter the messages they want to give their children. When we speak to ourselves with body-positive messages, we are better able to transmit these healthy messages to our children.
Our children are constantly forming messages about who they are how they are valued based on what we as parents say about them, ourselves, and others in our world. Learning to be more conscious and mindful about the messages we send will powerfully influence how our children feel about themselves. We want to send the message that we value people for qualities that are more important than appearance. There are many simple strategies to help you accomplish this goal of sending positive messages about body image and food.
Greet people in a welcoming way that does not include comments about appearance. Instead of saying, “Your hair looks great!” or “You look so young!” try saying “It’s so good to see you!” or “We missed you!” This demonstrates that we notice and value people for qualities other than appearance.
Be thoughtful about how you talk about others when they are not around. For example, avoid talking about others’ appearances to (or within earshot of) your children when those people are not around. Children learn a lot from what we do and don’t say when someone leaves the dinner table to go to the restroom. Instead, focus on the people who are present with you, ask a trivia question, and pass the appetizers.
Enthusiastically express your values in qualities other than appearance. Think about the qualities you want to nurture in your own children. Stop expressing a value in small size and beauty over other characteristics. Talk first about how generous, forgiving, hard-working, or bold your daughter’s teammate is before you comment on her cuteness.
Focus on fullness and satisfaction when determining the end of a meal or choice of a snack. This helps your child learn to notice his/her own body’s signals for having eaten enough. Focus less on the effects over-eating might have on body size or appearance.
Teach children about foods that bring them energy (protein) and boost their immunity (fruits and vegetable) and that help them grow strong bones (dairy). Emphasize health - not size. When you clip their fingernails or comment on how a cut has healed, take the opportunity to say: “You must be eating such healthy foods for your nails to grow so quickly, or your body to close up that cut so nicely.” In essence, link eating with living, not looking in the mirror.
Do not label foods as “good” or “bad.” This offers a false dichotomy and appeals to the rigid thinking of individuals with eating and body image issues. Focus more on variety and moderation.
Try to limit mirrors in your household wherever possible. Looking for something to fill a blank wall? Think art! Having many mirrors in the environment encourages focusing on appearance and how others see us rather than our inner worlds.
Remove scales from easy-access areas. If you must keep a scale in your home, keep it tucked away behind the toilet bowl cleaner under the sink. Focusing on weight as a measure of health minimizes all the other important aspects of wellness such as good energy, strength, concentration, and emotional regulation.
Parents play a powerful role in shaping how a child views herself, her body, her self-worth. The less emphasis we place on physical appearance, the less likely our children will be to form unhealthy relationships with food and body image. The more consciously we parent our children to hear healthy, empowering messages, the more likely they will be to internalize those voices and develop positive feelings about themselves as adults.
If you find your child or teen is already struggling with body image and/or unhealthy eating patterns, it can be helpful to seek professional guidance from a therapist who specializes in these issues. The earlier you address these concerns, the better the outcome will be for the whole family.
How It Started
The crayons moved into the kitchen when the kids moved into the house. Pre-family, there was a well-organized art supply drawer in a small desk in a studio apartment in Brooklyn that I visited when a birthday card needed making. But the kids arrived, the small desk and its people relocated to California, and the apartment became a 2 bed/1 bath classroom.
I didn’t realize it as it was happening, but it seems only natural that it did. My mom taught first grade for my entire life. I spent Saturdays and summers in her classroom organizing her books-on-tape, stapling the seasonal borders on her bulletin boards, organizing her busy desk, and scrubbing down the rainbow table. Many of the women in my family are teachers; we sit on the floor at parties, we talk to the kids, we play charades. My house became a classroom because teaching is home for me.
What does a blended home-classroom look like? Your virtual tour (aka your new favorite pastime) will begin at the front door and we’ll work our way around.
Organizing Space Improves Individual and Family Functioning
Why does organization of the physical space matter? Children launch more easily in organized environments - it may be counter-intuitive but order promotes action and creativity. This is “scaffolding” at its finest: we provide the foundation so children can build upon it. We help children recognize the variety of activities available when we organize large spaces and multiple materials into small places or stations.
Have no fear, “organized” does not mean “clean”. Organized means everything has a place, not necessarily on a polished shelf, but in a predictable spot where it lives: a box of cardboard scraps, a plastic tub of Legos, a basket of crayons, etc. Organization allows for children to be able to do what they need or want to do and facilitates locating the supplies needed (without your help). In an organized environment, children find things, make plans, and activate more readily.
In addition to creativity and follow-through, stations encourage responsibility, thoughtfulness, independence, and planning. When children know what they need and where to find it, they can do things on their own. Furthermore, stations inherently require practice with transitioning; when things don’t have a designated place, you don’t really switch between them - they’re all at your disposal. With stations, there is a natural understanding that you’re leaving one place (cleaning it up, perhaps!) and beginning a new activity. The child can’t miss the fact that she’s walking away from dress-up and starting to build a marble run. With training and modeling, it will make perfect sense to her to wrap up one activity before moving onto the next.
Organizing Time Improves Emotional and Family Functioning
As many of us with school-age children now have the responsibility to teach at home, and all of us with children now have the privilege to be at home with them 24-7, there is no time like the present to bring structure into our lives. Parents often ask me why their children behave better at school than at home. One piece of that multi-faceted answer is structure. Kids thrive with it and can crumble without it. Beyond the practicalities of structure providing food and plentiful sleep at regular healthy intervals (where lack of structure does not), structure provides psychological “grounding.” Structure within a day - knowing what to expect and when to expect it - is often an effective homeopathic response to anxiety. We like to know - generally - what comes next. And ironically, knowing what comes next can help us stay in the present. Fixating on the past and future is fueled by and fuel for anxiety. Focusing on what is happening right now is an anti-anxiety force. Knowing when Mom will be on work calls, that there will be time for free play, that I have one page of math after reading, that we will play a game tonight, provides psychological safety and gives a child freedom to stay in the “now.”
How do we create structure within a day? Literally get out your whiteboard and make a schedule just like the one your teacher posts at the front of her room: Check-in, Math, Recess, Lunch, Library, etc. Have fun with it. He’s helping you make dinner = cooking class! She’s watering the plants = Herbology (Thank you, J.K. Rowling)! Grandma is calling while you make lunch to read the kids a story = guest lecture! Kids love bringing home the structure of their school day. It is familiar and it works. Even on weekends, you can fill the schedule with leisurely activities: relax time, breakfast, free play, read, lunch, outside time, etc. They love this too!
Our kids will feel good when they are functioning well, and when things are working at home they will feel happy and peaceful. They are experiencing so much change (anxiety-provoking) and holding so many unknowns (also anxiety-provoking) right now that we can do them and ourselves a great service by moving essential aspects of the classroom into our homes.
Part ONE in a Series by Carrie R. King, Ph.D. and Arlynn D. King, M.A.
Crayons in My Kitchen
Improving Family Functioning Through
Blending Home and Classroom
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