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Generation to Generation

by Jane R. Hirschmann

When I recently gave a talk to the parents' association of a local elementary school, one of the parents raised a question which is frequently asked whenever I talk about preventing childhood eating problems:

"I have one child who was born skinny. She has always been in the lowest tenth percentile on the growth curve. She eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants it. I never think twice about what she puts in her mouth nor do I worry about her weight. My son, however, was a big baby and has always been in the 90th percentile when it comes to height and weight. I try to restrict his food intake and his food choices. I see that he is becoming very obsessed about food. Obviously, he is picking up on my concern. What should I do? Everyone is very worried about his weight."

Of course, everyone is worried about the weight of a large child. Living as we do in a fat-phobic society, many people focus on the child whose weight does not fit the cultural ideal. This is a very difficult and painful issue for parents. From my perspective, there is only one solution: Treat the large child in the same way you treat the thin child.

Begin by challenging everything that you think you should do for him. Everyone suggests that you attempt to keep him away from "fattening" foods and offer him as much exercise as possible. After all, the logic goes, you want to do everything you can to help him fit into a culture which deplores fat. But is this prescription helpful or harmful?

Almost all the suggestions about how to deal with a fat child are based on the assumption that a parent can turn a large child into a thin one. Not possible! We come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; the most helpful thing a parent of a fat child can do is to offer him or her an alternative, loving view of his or her body and to encourage the large child to eat from stomach hunger. How many of you reading this article were large as children and developed eating problems because your parents and the world imposed its prejudices and food restrictions on you? What size would you be now if you'd been accepted as you were? In other words, the prescription for a large child who is on his or her way to becoming a compulsive eater because of the pressure to be thin and to eat differently is the same as for the adult compulsive eater—acceptance, legalizing and demand feeding.

What does this look like in practice? When you are tempted to restrict foods, particularly "fattening" foods, remember that restriction leads to rebellion and overeating. For example, let's say you are at the grocery store with your son and he wants to buy candy at the checkout counter. You don't want him to because you would rather see him eat a food with less calories or fat. Ask yourself "What would I do if he were thin?" Probably you would let him have the candy. Or let's say you are at home and he goes for the chips. Your instinct is to tell him to take an apple instead. Check yourself by saying, "How would I feel if he weren't fat? Would I be so focused on every morsel he put in his mouth?"

Let's say you live in an apartment building. You are about to leave the house with your son and you think to say to him, "How about taking the stairs today instead of the elevator?" In the back of your mind, you are hoping to sneak in some exercise. Would you be making the same suggestion if he were thin? Again, probably not.

Summer is approaching and you know that the family will be spending a lot of time by the water. You are racking your brain trying to figure out what he could use as a cover-up at the beach. Who says that he needs to cover up? What is his crime? Why shouldn't he run free in his bathing trunks just like every other child? He doesn't need to be punished for his size. How about challenging that thought and taking him shopping for some jazzy suits. While you're at it, you might want to tell him that you were wrong about restricting his food intake and that you'd like to try something new this summer. You would like him to direct his own eating and so you will shop with him for food supplies. Spend some time with your child explaining demand feeding in language appropriate for his or her age.

There is enormous pressure to place food restrictions, exercise regimes and clothing rules on a large child. These plans not only fail but are responsible for weight cycling, depression and a negative sense of self. Our goal must be to help all children in all their shapes and sizes rejoice in the uniqueness of their appetites and their bodies.

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