As parents are well aware it is common for preteens, both boys and girls, to self-evaluate their appearance. Yet did you know that preschoolers are already forming ideas about body image that will last a lifetime? In a recent study by Jennifer A. Harriger, et al. it was found that children as young as three are already beginning to understand that “thin” is the ideal which society values as attractive. This requires adults in their lives to take a step back and evaluate the messages we inadvertently send our children. After all, our goal as parents is to create an environment in which a healthy body image can be developed.
There are some simple strategies to help promote healthy body image in our little ones. Try incorporating a few of these suggestions each day as you interact with your child.
Successes: Praise your child’s efforts rather than their accomplishments. This reward system is becoming commonly encouraged among educators and parents. Rewarding effort encourages children to work to the best of their ability, therefore developing mastery. Rewarding accomplishment is evaluated externally and can prove frustrating when not getting the praise they are expecting.
Appearance: Exclaim what a lovely color their dress/shirt is, rather than how attractive they are while wearing the outfit. “That color really brings out the blue in your eyes!”.
Values: Flatter your child with complements regarding their values. For example, notice when they are friendly to their neighbor or help out a friend. Kindness and friendliness are traits that can be encouraged and further developed over the years.
Media: Be aware of the messages media is sending our children about gender specific roles and appearance. Little girls are not-so-subtly reminded to be beautiful princesses. Our little boys are not-so-subtly reminded to be strong superheroes with iron-abs in which to “save” the princesses. Take time to talk about what real males and females are all about. Read this great essay by Naomi Perks in which she addresses external influences young boys face.
Mealtime: As a child, a common mealtime mantra was “take what you want, eat what you take.” Needless to say, my eyes were bigger than my stomach and sometimes I innocently took more than I could eat. Keep in mind that children will eat when they are hungry and will usually stop eating when they have had enough. Encouraging them to eat, even when their little tummies are full, makes it difficult for children to tune into their internal hunger signals. Instead, wrap up their leftovers and offer it to them for lunch the next day.
Eating habits: Explain to kids about foods they can always eat (vegetables, fruit, lean meat, whole grains) and foods they can sometimes eat (sugary treats). This will help them continue healthy eating habits as they grow.
Parental influence: When looking in the mirror avoid self-depreciating comments. You have a little extra ‘cush in the tush’? So what. Your child looks at you with love and admiration, not with a mental measuring tape. By embracing your body - whatever form it takes - your child will learn to embrace their own body. Remind them of all the amazing things a body can do.
Of course we have to get real. Yes, our son looks super handsome in his new suit. Yes, our daughter looks beautiful in her cool outfit. A little praise for their appearance on occasion will not hurt them. In fact, we do want them to take pride in their appearance as they go through life. There is a difference between taking pride in appearance and becoming obsessed with the ideal, however. Take a look in the proverbial mirror. Appreciate how our subtle cues influence our children’s developing body image. We can cultivate a healthy appreciation of what a “perfect body” truly is; a vessel in which to enjoy life, experience adventure, and impact the world in whatever positive manner we choose.