Positive Body Image (Tips for helping your child focus on health)

Some people might say that we live in a world focused on healthy eating and exercise.  It’s nearly impossible to get through the day without being bombarded with commercials, both on TV and in print, that aim to help you lose weight, take off a few inches, or look miraculously younger in three easy steps.  Others would argue that we live in a celebrity obsessed culture that emphasizes a certain beauty ideal.  Magazines highlighting the “rights and wrongs” of celebrities line the check out aisles at supermarkets, pharmacies, and just about everywhere else.  No matter how you look at it, the constant discussion about beauty and thinness is a dangerous game.  Particularly now that body image issues have trickled down to the preschool level.  Yes, you read that right.  Preschoolers are starting to focus on body image.

A recent study by Jennifer Harringer at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, revealed some startling statistics.  It’s only the beginning of what will be a much larger study, but the information gathered so far is important.  Harringer studied 55 girls aged 3-5 to see what kind of messages they might have already internalized about body image.  Given the age group, Harringer had to get creative in her study.  She offered the girls three playing pieces to choose from for a game of Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.  The pieces represented three different body types:  Thin, average, and large.  69% of the girls chose the thin playing piece! 20% chose the average piece and 11% chose the largest.  That’s not the worst part.  When Harringer encouraged the girls to trade their pieces for her larger piece, 2/3 of the girls were reluctant or refused to trade. As if that’s not enough, when asked which piece they would like to have as a best friend, 71% chose the thinnest while just 7% chose the largest.

With preschoolers you always have to wonder how many of them were trying to get the “right” answer.  It’s also important to consider the fact that most preschoolers are reluctant to trade a new toy right away anyway.  Even given those considerations, the percentages are still fairly alarming.  Preschool girls are showing a preference for thinness, even when choosing a friend.

In our house we try our best to focus on health, growth, and more importantly, personality traits.  I’m fairly certain that my kids don’t even know the word “fat”.  I do some editing when reading and the DVR takes care of commercials.  Reading this study got me thinking about how to help young girls develop a healthy body image early on.  As we know, negative body image correlates with eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.  Below are some tips to help you help your daughters focus on health:


1. Send positive messages: When trying to encourage healthy eating around here, we are careful to focus on “growing tall like Daddy”, but some other research out of Melbourne, Australia shows that parents are clearly sending the message that boys need to eat more to build muscles while girls should eat less to appear attractive.  They are studying four year olds.  It’s frightening, really.  Give compliments based on personality, skill development, and prosocial behavior, not appearance. Granted, kids like to be complimented on their fashion sense.  As well they should be.  But, for the most part, try to focus on kindness, generosity, ideas, humor, and creativity.

2. Be a good role model: Think about the messages you send when you have a bad day and criticize your own body.  Avoid making negative self-statements in front of your kids.  Show them healthy eating and moderate exercise. My kids eat early, so I don’t eat dinner with them, but I always have a salad during their dinnertime.  Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables in front of them and make an effort to try new things. Talk about how different foods help you feel healthy.

3. Focus on health: Give them a quick, preschool level, lesson in biology.  Explain that healthy foods help fuel your body to give you energy, help you grow, and help you learn.  Avoid food battles! Liam has taught me the art of being patient with food.  He is the pickiest eater on the planet.  I offer new things and accept no as the answer.  Teach them to listen to their bodies. It’s important for kids to recognize that you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.  Don’t make dessert such a novelty that it becomes an obsession. A small bowl of pudding (if there is room after dinner) or other small treat teaches kids that moderation is the key.

4. Family exercise: Exercise is good for so many reasons.  It gets our hearts pumping, it keeps us healthy, it helps us sleep, and decreases mood related issues, including anxiety and depression.  Get moving as a family! Take long walks, go for a hike, swim, ride bikes, do some yoga.  Find an activity that works for everyone and prioritize that on the weekends.  It’s a great way to connect while staying healthy.  Riley is currently obsessed with yoga, so I just ordered a new family yoga DVD.  We are looking forward to it!

5. Positive reinforcement: News flash:  Preschoolers love to be praised!  Praise = encouragement. Have you ever noticed that telling your daughter that she’s a super fast runner causes her to run some more?  Praise them for healthy choices and for their accomplishments. Happy kids are more likely to be motivated kids.  Keep the positive vibes flowing.

6. Crack down on media: As I described Jennifer Harringer’s study to Sean the other night, it sparked a discussion about the ads that kids are repeatedly exposed to during “preschool programming”.  We watch a few shows on Nick, Jr., one on Disney, and a couple on PBS at different times.  The ads (with the exception of PBS, of course) always seem to be geared toward diet plans for moms, medicines, and include images that are not appropriate for preschoolers.  Invest in the DVR/Tivo or DVD’s. We record and prescreen everything, which means that our kids never sit through a commercial. Riley was shocked to learn that her Mimi couldn’t tape her shows and fast forward through the commercials when we last visited CT!  Avoid leaving your magazines lying around the house. While I don’t read the celebrity gossip magazines, I once caught Riley flipping through Marie Claire staring at the images.  Even Self Magazine and Marie Claire like to feature perfection.  Try to limit the exposure.

7. Be open to discussion: When a four year old says to her mother, “I’m fat”, it’s a natural inclination to respond, “No you’re not, you’re just right”.  The problem is that this kind of a response shuts down the conversation.  A better strategy is to ask follow up questions. Say something like, “what does fat mean to you?”  Try to discuss the true meaning of negative body image words and refocus your child’s thinking on the meaning of healthy.  It can be useful to cut out lots of different magazine pictures and discuss the differences between people. No two bodies are exactly alike.  Try to focus on eye color, hair, height, and facial cues instead of size and shape. And those perfect bodies in the magazines and commercials?  Those aren’t real.  It’s ok to tell kids that people get dressed up differently for photographs and commercials, but that in real life they don’t always look that way.


Helping your child develop a healthy body image begins early.  Try to pay attention to the messages you send, focus on healthy living, and praise your kids for the wonderful personalities that they have.


What do you think of these new studies?  Are we sending the wrong messages to our kids?

Get Moving! (Tips for getting exercise…even in bad weather!)

This just in:  It is COLD on the East coast!  I’ve been checking in with my favorite girls (dutifully leaving out the part that it was 74 degrees in El Segundo today), and they are ready to make a run for it.  I know I grew up there, but I’m really not sure how we survived.  I remember being bundled up and sent outside to build snow forts and snowmen (and I remember it being fun), but now just the thought of it makes me shiver.  I’ve said it before but I will say it again:  We are spoiled in Los Angeles.  I took my kids to Connecticut for a week in early December.  Liam didn’t leave the house for the week because he refused to wear a coat (“too puffy”).  Riley was always ready to venture out in her puffy coat only to declare, “I’m cold” a few minutes into each outing.  My kids don’t understand cold, that’s for sure.  I feel for my mommy friends who are cold, cooped up, and ready to hop on the next plane to anywhere.  That said, kids need exercise.  I’ve been on a mission to get my kids moving again after a rather sedentary period that included three weeks of rain and back-to-back episodes of the stomach flu.  It’s amazing how quickly kids can adapt to a sedentary lifestyle.  Liam, a bit of a homebody anyway, often pipes in with “I want to stay home with Mommy” before the plan is even on the table.  Riley would run out the door only to announce, “I’m too tired to walk” before we even hit the sidewalk.  I had to lock the stroller away for a week and just get them moving, even if it meant carrying one or both of them on the return trip.  We needed extreme measures to break a bad habit.  While many pediatricians will probably agree that most toddlers and preschoolers can meet their daily exercise needs just by being themselves, I have seen firsthand how a few illnesses have caused my normally energetic duo to adapt to sticking close to home and playing in a less active manner.  The result?  Cranky, tired kiddos prone to temper tantrums.  The benefits of getting your kids moving are numerous:  Better sleep, fewer tantrums, increased energy, hungrier for healthy foods at mealtimes, possibly fewer colds, and generally happier demeanors.  The question is, how do you get your kids moving for 30-60 minutes daily when you are covered in snow in single digit temperatures or trapped inside due to non-stop rain?  Below are some tips to help you get your kids moving, despite the weather:

1.   Get active with them: The best way to get kids moving is to move along with them.  Don’t just press play on the iPod; start dancing with them.  Play hide and seek.  Use the Mommy and Me yoga DVD that’s been sitting in the TV cabinet all year. When mommy and daddy join in, it’s always more fun.

2.   Educate your kids: Sometimes the best way to get a preschooler to avoid doing something is to tell them that they have to do it because you said so.  That’s not really a reason (not to them anyway).  Preschoolers love to learn.  Prepare a little lesson on the benefits of exercise.  What is exercise?  For a preschooler, exercise includes:  Running, jumping, climbing, riding, spinning, swinging, rolling, etc. Have a little race with them and then ask them to think about how their bodies feel.  Teach them a silly dance number and then ask them to think about how they are feeling when they laugh.  Let them figure out the benefits of moving their bodies.  When it’s time to get moving, give them a simple choice (“do you want to ride your trike or go for a walk?”).  Give them a little control.

3.   Capture their imagination: Pirate Adventure: Build a “pirate ship” out of toys and go on a “pirate adventure” (rowing required).  Fill an old shoebox with stickers and other small treats and “bury” it in the house.  Draw out a treasure map (X marks the spot!) and send them running.  Add an arts and crafts element by having them paint flags for the pirate ship.  And don’t forget bandanas for dress up!  Treasure Hunt: Hide a small treat for each player somewhere in the house.  Using different colored sticky notes for each kid, number them one through six.  On the back of each note write, “find clue #2 (or whatever # comes next) on ______ (insert location here)”.  This was very popular in my house during the rain.  The kids were zooming around finding each clue and screaming with delight as they found each one!  Obviously, clue number 6 has the treat hidden beneath it.  Ice Skating: Tape paper plates to their feet and send them “skating” around the room!  Adult supervision is a must!  Royal Ball: Break out those princess dresses, make some “fancy” snacks, send “invitations” to each family member, and put on the music.  Dancing required!

4.   Other indoor activities: Santa brought Riley a great Hopscotch Mat from Lakeshore Learning.  It is a non-slip hopscotch carpet that comes with two beanbags.  Great for throwing, jumping, and counting!  Hula-hoops can be used in the traditional manner (lots of spinning fun) or lined up along the floor for jumping on “lily pads” or in “puddles”.  Musical chairs is easy and fun for playgroups.  You’ll be surprised how quickly they start moving when the chairs disappear!  Follow the leader is always a winner.  Model ways to make it fun by leading first and including lots of jumps, spins, and rolls.  Just make sure to switch up the leader every few minutes to keep it interesting.  Obstacle course might destroy your house, but also provide lots of fun.  Time to get down those couch cushions, set up roadblocks, hang sheets to run through (or under), and watch them work their way through the course while using different muscles to tackle each task.  More importantly, enjoy the squeals and smiles that go along with it!  Limbo is always a crowd pleaser around here.  Google the lyrics, break out the broom, and have a limbo party!  Skip the rules, it’s more fun to watch them find creative ways to get under that stick!  Scavenger Hunt: Hide small items around the house (it’s as easy as spoons, stuffed animals, shoes, etc.) and give them a picture list (if you plan ahead, clip art has pictures of everything) and a paper bag and send them off to collect the goods!  Award everyone with a sticker.  Who needs a meltdown when you can’t leave the house?!

5.   Outdoor activities: Trikes, bikes, plasma cars, jump ropes, hula-hoops, scooters, swings, running, jumping, walking, etc. all provide much needed movement for little ones.  And in the words of my four year old daughter, “this fresh air feels so good in my lungs!”  (Ok, maybe I took the education part a little too far!)  Incidentally, playgrounds are like ready made obstacle courses.  Chart the course and send them running!

6.   Classes: Organized classes can be expensive, but they are also a great way for little ones to work on social skills while getting some exercise in.  Check out your local YMCA or Department of Recreation to see what’s available.  I can’t say enough good things about Gymboree Play & Music.  Both have my kids have been enrolled on and off. Liam really enjoyed the baby gym classes, while Riley has taken everything from baby gym to sports, art, and even their preschool alternative program (which really helped prepare her for preschool).  Of all of the programs we’ve tried, Gymboree has consistently been the best.  My Gym also has great gym programs for little ones.  And swimming is always a winner around here.  Try to gauge what kids of activities your child seems to gravitate toward and take it from there.  One class is plenty.  There is no need to load your child up with everything at once.

7.   Model good habits: Whether you’re factoring in a brisk walk or jog, gym time, or some much needed time on the elliptical (or machine of choice, naturally) show your kids that exercise is important to you too.  Much like modeling healthy eating habits, modeling the importance of a little exercise helps your kids see that you are not just talking the talk.  And more importantly, that you are committed to your own health as well.

8.   Limit the TV: I know, in a blizzard it’s nearly impossible.  But the American Academy of Pediatrics would want me to tell you that 1-2 hours of “quality” programming a day is plenty for kids ages 2 and up.  Try to stick to the “educational” shows to make it count.  But don’t beat yourself up when they’re horribly sick and you let them watch more…some days are better than others!

Exercise:  It’s good for the body and it’s good for the psyche.  So find your fun activity of choice and get moving…it will break the winter blues for you too!

What creative strategies have you devised to get your family moving?  Please comment and share your tips!

To read more about the role exercise plays in keeping kids happy, please check out my Mommy Moment article from last week, “Exercise Your Soul”  http://www.mommymoment.ca/2011/01/exercise-your-soul.html