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How Unconscious Messages from Childhood Can Affect You
Seven Things Parents Say That Can Contribute to Eating and Weight Problems in the Future
As people who have struggled with food or weight, we vow to raise children who are healthy and free of these challenges. In addition to setting a great example and providing a balanced diet and plenty of opportunities for enjoyable activity, we need to carefully choose the messages we send about eating.
It’s also important to consider how our unconscious messages from childhood may be helping or hurting our own efforts to be healthy. Awareness of those long forgotten messages allow us to change the way we self-parent.
Raise adults, not children
Keep in mind that we are raising adults, not children. Our goals are to provide them with skills and age-appropriate responsibility for managing their lives without our constant vigilance. One key life skill is the ability to navigate our food abundant environment while maintaining optimal health.
Here are seven things that well-meaning parents commonly say that may have unintended consequences. Each statement is followed by some ideas about what you could say to your children (and yourself) instead:
1. Clean your plate; there are starving children in ______ (third world country).
This outdated message teaches children scarcity eating behaviors in an abundant food environment.
What you could say instead: It’s important not to be wasteful so please only take as much as you think you need. Or, If you're full, we can save the rest for later.
2. You have to eat all your vegetables or there will be no dessert.
Kids are smart. When you bribe them for eating certain foods, they quickly realize those foods must be yucky and that dessert is the reward. They also learn to hold out until a reward is offered. Do you think of certain foods as special? How does that affect your choices?
What you could say instead: I love all kinds of different foods—some that make me healthy and strong and some that are just for fun. What kinds of foods do you like? Or, Enjoy your dinner. We'll be having dessert in a couple of hours.
3. Eat all your dinner or you don't get dessert.
This variation on the threat above translates to “You must overeat so I will reward you by giving you more to eat!” Children naturally love sweet foods so they can learn to override their fullness signals. As adults, we may be tempted to order an 800 calorie salad to justify ordering an 800 calorie piece of cheesecake.
What you could say instead: Save room for dessert tonight! Or, Do you want to share?
4. You are such a good eater!
Children want nothing more than to please their parents. While mealtime should be a pleasant time to connect with your children, eating should remain intrinsically driven to meet the child's fuel needs, NOT to earn your praise.
What you could say instead: You must have been really hungry today! Or, I love spending time with you while we have dinner.
5. You are such a picky eater!
All children (and adults) have some foods they just don't like. Some children are highly taste and/or texture sensitive but most will outgrow it. Picky eating becomes an entrenched behavior when we berate, beg, bribe—or worse, feed kids only what they say they'll eat.
What you could say instead: I know you didn't like it last time; tell me what you think about it today after you have one polite bite. Or, Did you know your taste buds grow up just like you do? I wonder if you like this big kid food yet?
6. I was so bad at lunch today! Now I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.
Children are born to move. They naturally love exploring their environment, challenging themselves, and playing actively. Unfortunately, the messages they get from adults teaches them that exercise is punishment for eating.
What you could say instead: I ate more than I needed and now I feel too full and uncomfortable. I think a walk would help me feel better. Want to join me? Or, Anybody for a bike ride?!
7. I am so fat! (Or, I can't believe ________ has let herself go!)
Kids learn from us even when we think they aren't listening. Statements like this teach kids that it's OK to put yourself and others down, and judge people for their weight or other physical attributes. Perhaps they secretly wonder what you really think about them.
What you could say instead: I'm not perfect but I do my best to make healthy choices.
Whatever else you say, remember to say often…I love you just the way you are!
What messages did you learn as a child that affect your eating today?
Michelle May, M.D. is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. Download chapter one free. Dr. May is also the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program that helps individuals learn to break free from mindless and emotional eating to live a more vibrant, healthy life.