Kids aren’t born thinking about carbs or clean plates or what defines beauty. They are born with energy to move, with drive to take on the world, with curiosity, with inner pride.
What adults say to kids matters. You inspire their health and their sense of self. It’s a big responsibility, but it doesn’t have to be complex. Sometimes just knowing what to say, and feeling empowered in the small moments of each day, can have a big influence.
“You are you, and you’re wonderful as you are.”
It’s valuable that children know you accept them for who they are. Decades of research has shown that how adults talk to kids about food and body has a direct influence on their self-concept. A child with a poor self-concept is more likely to experience negative physical and mental health consequences. Telling the kids in your life “you’re wonderful as you are” builds them up.
“Food is the fuel your body and brain need to power your day.”
We live in a diet-obsessed culture where kids overhear endless messages about counting calories, restricting food groups, and good or bad foods. Instead, they need to hear more about balance and variety. Let them know that food is what gives them energy to do the things they love.
“Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”
Dislike of one’s body can start at a young age and can contribute to low self-esteem, shame and unhealthy eating behaviors as kids grow. Let kids know that the size and shape of their body isn’t what makes them healthy, strong or beautiful. Speak about your own body in a positive way and focus on what bodies help us do. “I’m grateful for my legs because I can run fast.”
“When you eat, listen to your stomach. It will tell you when to stop.”
Research shows that associating food with things other than sensations of hunger or fullness can negatively impact a child’s ability to self-regulate how much they eat. Instead of using food as reward or comfort, or making kids be part of the “clean plate club”, encourage them to listen to their bodies when they eat. Model this by saying things like “My stomach feels full. I don’t need to eat more right now.”
“You look [emotion]. How do you feel?”
Focusing on how kids feel rather than on how they look helps them to understand that what’s on the inside is what matters. Instead of saying “You look so cute today”, try focusing on the emotion you see them expressing: “You look sad [happy] [excited]. How do you feel?”