Look at an infant. She knows she is perfect and unashamedly curious about the world around her and her own self. Children carry an innate confidence that is unparallel. However, the adults around the child can mess with this natural confidence and set them up to a lifetime of insecurities and unhappiness. If you want your child to grow up confident, you need to look at your own self-perception.
Children learn by observing. Your words of appreciation and compliments you give them matter less compared to how you view your own body. The words you use to describe yourself will become your child’s self-talk in the later years. If you think «I have to lose weight to look good,» be assured that your child is likely to say the exact same thing throughout her/his life.
No matter what your size or shape, the words you choose to describe yourself and others will become the words of their inner dialogue with themselves. They will also feel pressurized to fit the perfect shape and size in order to feel accepted and survive in this world.
The thoughts you implant in them through your own negative views about your body also set them up for a lifetime of self-esteem issues, insecurity in relationships, and makes them more vulnerable to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Here’s how you can ensure you don’t mess up your child’s confidence and raise them to feel good about their body and who they are beyond their body.
1. Watch what you say when you look at yourself in the mirror
What’s the first thing you notice when you look at yourself in the mirror?
«Are those new wrinkles?»
«I need to lose an inch to fit into the dress.»
«OMG. I look horrible.»
«The dress looks weird on me.»
«I wish my nose was smaller/bigger/sharper.»
If these are your first thoughts when you greet yourself in the mirror, you need to review the relationship you have with yourself. It’s okay to want to be healthy and fit. It’s NOT okay if you constantly beat yourself or set up expectations to force fit your body into a certain mold. Your child is watching and listening. The message you give her/him is: I cannot be happy with myself unless I fit my mom’s/dad’s idea of perfect. I am not beautiful unless I am thin/tall/curvy etc.
2. Don’t reduce all food to their caloric value
It’s such a sad irony that the «most developed» of nations often face the worst of food-related ailments. For example, US tops child obesity as well as eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
This dichotomy is primarily due to the fact that we have reduced the value of food to how many pounds or inches it will add to your body.
Whenever you discuss food or when you pick your groceries, help your child develop a healthy relationship with food. Talk about the nourishment it provides so that the unconscious enmity you feel toward food doesn’t get passed on. Isn’t it amazing that the food you eat provides you with the nutrients and energy you need to function as a human being? Help your child develop this sense of respect for food.
3. Be grateful for what your body does, not just how it looks
Your body isn’t just a form to tone into shape, dress to impress and display with a smug sense of satisfaction. It sure does feel good to look good. But feeling good and looking good has nothing to do with being a certain size or shape.
From a very young age, ensure your child’s daily routine involves a healthy appreciation for their little developing body. Telling them how incredible it is to have healthy organs, how their senses help them enjoy the world around them and their limbs let them run, jump, and play is important to counter all the negative messages the media and the world send out about the body.
When you don’t think it’s ridiculous to say «how thin your legs are» you shouldn’t think it’s silly to say «how amazing the human body is to function optimally day and night.»
4. Watch how you describe celebrities and peers
Do you dissect celebrity posts or pictures in magazines with criticism or judgment? Do you reduce all artists, actors, musicians, and achievers to how they look? Do you discuss their work more than or at least as much as you discuss their appearance? If not, your child is learning that how they end up looking matters more than what they end up achieving.
5. Focus on health and fitness, not shapes and sizes
It’s important to exercise and eat right. It’s important to understand what’s good for your body and provide it. But what’s more critical is understanding that your body is not the same as any other. Get fit to be your best, Eat right to feel your best. Do not compare, especially in front of your kid. Going to the gym, working out, exercising, eating healthy should come from a place of self-love. If not, you’re simply teaching your kid more ways to punish oneself for not being «perfect.»
6. Challenge body-shaming jokes, comments, conversations
Silence is good when amongst fools, but when it comes to body shaming, your voice matters. If a peer comments about the intern’s unflattering dress for her «size,» tell them how you don’t think the same. If a friend jokes about a celeb’s flabs, don’t laugh to be polite. When conversations are overtly critical or intrusive where someone comments about your or a third person’s size, shape, body type etc. let them know how flaky and unhealthy it is.
You might lose a few friends, but you will gain the respect of those who have their values in place. Sometimes kids can be innocent in their observations. If a child calls a new mommy fat, explaining how the words «fat, thin, skinny, ugly, too x (big, small, broad, narrow etc.) are not the terms to use to describe others or oneself.
7. Discuss stereotypes, ads, and media portrayal
When you and your child come across an ad that reinforces stereotypes, use it to discuss the biases. This can be very effective with teens, especially when you bring in humor. But little children, too, are sensitive to understand the stupidity of media portrayals when you bring their attention to it.
It’s funny that the man now looks at the woman after she has lost weight. Looks like he needs better glasses; she was always beautiful from the beginning.
«Wow. Angels falling from heaven. Looks like the makers thought angels have nothing else to do than to sniff around perfumes from earth.»
8. Help your child develop a deep sense of self
Your child is first a human being. She/he is an incredible source of creativity, intelligence, wit, joy, kindness, and all things good. And so are you. The more you acknowledge YOURSELF for who you are rather than how you look, your child’s sense of self will grow deep and strong.
9. Develop body awareness
Apart from all this, practice and encourage gratitude for the little pleasures of life. Make bath time a fun time to simply be in their body and feel good about it. Let playtime be a time to feel physically alive and pulsating with life. Bring attention to their breadth and how they feel. Ask them questions such as these to increase their body awareness:
How does your body feel when you are happy?
Where in the body do you feel sad?
Do you feel any aches or pain?
How do you feel after good night’s sleep?
The soup makes me feel so good and warm inside. What about you?
The pastry just melted in my mouth and tastes incredible. How do you like it?
And lastly, be kinder to yourself. Your child will learn that it’s okay to be what they are as long as they accept and love themselves. They look up to you to learn how to treat and love themselves.