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How to Help A Child Lose Weight [Help a reader out!]

Posted May 24 2011 10:59pm

Courtesy of the State of Georgia’s new childhood obesity campaign

Three hours of hysterical sobbing, a whole box of kleenex thrown and self-inflicted eye poking (yes, really) is what my third grader did when I assigned him a second sheet of math problems after he lied to me about having homework so he could go play with a friend after school. I am well aware that kids often do not do what we want them to. But then if parenting was meant to be easy they would’ve given us the user manual in the hospital. Instead we do everything we can to help them grow up to be decent human beings, half the time wondering if this is all a cosmic joke and somewhere God is chuckling while my children publicly humiliate me . (Truly, you need to click through that link.) Which is why a recent comment by Reader Emma on my Selling Weight Loss to Children post made me want to fly across the country to hug her (and also giggle – read her last paragraph). She writes ,

So my daughter is in the “at risk for overweight” category, and at 13 is approaching my weight and wearing my clothes, even though I’m almost 6 inches taller. She recently gave me some clothes she grew out of! Her doctor has said to “keep an eye on it.” For 3 years we have “watched” and talked and talked while she continues to gain. Even though this category does not pose a health risk (and even may be somewhat healthier according to some of Char’s favorite studies) charlotte’s note: I think she means this , SHE wants to lose weight so she feels more confident, so she can stand out for being exceptional, not for being chubby. So HOW do I handle it when it’s not a health concern, but a cultural and self-esteem concern? When it is completely and only about looks and confidence? She eats healthy like we do, she moves, she just eats too MUCH. We talk a lot about this issue and about portion sizes. However, I am slowly beginning to accept that even though she is just a child, I can control what I provide to go in her mouth, and to some extent how much, but at the end of the day she is not me and is in charge of her own body.

I hate dealing with this! Someone give me a not creepy book recommendation on how to talk to girls about body issues and losing weight. At what point do we get more controlling and how? She is getting frustrated and discouraged, and I am ill equipped to deal with it anymore. We have obviously not helped her in the past 3 years doing our best, and need to up our game.

I don’t have teenagers. I haven’t been a teenager in…late-night-math-is-hard…13 years. I also don’t have kids that are overweight (not through any genius parenting on my part, for the record – they got Gym Hubby’s hummingbird metabolism). So I’m probably the last person to give advice on this and yet I hear about this issue a lot – from other parents, from the kids themselves in my role as a teacher, from the media – so I’m going to try. And I hope that you will do me better in the comments!

What NOT To Do To Help Your Child Lose Weight (All of which Emma already doesn’t do, I am quite sure – I just feel the need to restate it.)

1. Don’t publicly shame them. Georgia – the state with the 2nd highest rate of childhood obesity – recently launched this campaign. (See above pic.) These poor kids. It’s like being the “Valtrex guy” except worse because I think most people would rather have a life-long sexually transmitted infection than be obese. A popular radio show host was discussing this a few mornings ago and said something tantamount to, “If they stole someone’s bike of course you’d shame them! You want them to feel bad! That’s how people change. Same thing with fat kids. You gotta call them on the carpet.” Not only is that mean but it’s not effective. Sure people can be shamed into losing weight… in the short term. And possibly end up hating you or themselves and/or getting an eating disorder. Which leads to point #2:

2. Tell them they’re “bad.” Fat is not a morality issue. Eating fast food may be a bad choice but it’s not a sin. Gaining weight may not generally be healthy but it’s not evil. Being overweight does not make someone lazy, dirty, dishonest or even necessarily unhealthy. Especially with children we need to teach them that they are wonderful miraculous beings no matter what they look like. Period.

3. Talk about fat all the time. Whether you’re critiquing your own thighs in front of your kids or laughing at a celebrity with red circles around her cellulite on a magazine cover, you’re sending a message that people’s bodies are open for commentary.

4. Buy them Skecher’s Shape-Up shoes. You know those wobbly shoes that are so aggressively marketed to women, telling us that by being chronically off-balance we’ll have trimmer thighs and bouncier butts? (It’s scientifically not true but even if it were, all of us who’ve been wobbling around in high heels all our lives would have magnificent legs.)

Well now those shoes come in kid sizes - “preschool and grade school” sizes, to be precise. (Thanks to Turbo Jennie for the tip.) First, those things are $75.00! Who buys their kid $75.00 shoes? (Don’t answer that.) Second, the TV spot shows dysmorphic cartoon girls being chased by this:

Yes, boys dressed up like junk food. If that doesn’t send a thousand mixed moral messages, I don’t know what does.

5. Don’t ban treats. There’s a place for everything and as most of us know, telling someone they can never eat another Caramello bar will only drive them straight into its gooey chocolately arms for a farewell deep throat kiss.

What TO Do To Help Your Child Lose Weight

As Emma pointed out, the issue is not so simple. In fact, if you’ve ever been “the fat kid”, you know how painful this situation can be. So here are a few things to try.

1. Set a good example. This one seems like a “duh” but grown-ups are just as susceptible (maybe more so?) to the siren call of sweets as kids. Children are not dumb, they see what we do and they hear what we say and the former means much more than the latter. So make healthy eating taste good and make exercise look like fun and not like a chore - - it can be done! Take them shopping with you, let them help cook, make family time active time.

2. Manage their environment. Sure you can’t remove all temptation and kids will figure out how to go around you if they’re really motivated but often kids will eat something just because it’s there. They’re bored, Little Debbie is on the shelf at their eye level so they eat it. Keep clean food in your house and make treats special. This will likely require getting everyone in the house on board. I’ve heard people say, “Well my other kids aren’t overweight so why should they follow the same diet?” Because it shouldn’t be a diet, it should be healthy food and we should all eat food that helps our bodies and minds work at their best whether or not we need to lose weight. Move the fruit bowl off the counter and to the center of the table.

3. Point out the positives. Be their best cheerleader when they run that first mile or eat the first healthy meal they attempt to cook. Praise them for every effort. (No need to go over the top though. Teens can smell a pity compliment a mile away.)

4. Take them to the doctor. Ask to get their metabolism checked out. Most kids won’t have a metabolic issue but it’s worth it to see if hypothyroidism or diabetes or even depression is complicating issues.

5. Ask them questions. Kids are often afraid of things that we adults don’t expect them to be afraid of – what looks like ambivalence or defiance is often fear. So ask your child what they’re worried about and then really listen. Perhaps they’re afraid of being made fun of in gym class so they don’t even try. Or maybe they’re terrified of the pool. Are they being picked on at school? Do they understand what foods are healthy?

6. Within reason, let them make their own choices. Eventually we realize that our kids are their own people and they will make their own mistakes so they can learn and grow from them. Even if it kills us to watch them do it.

I don’t know if I’ve helped Emma out at all – through several e-mail conversations I’ve come to conclude that she’s light years ahead of me in the mothering department – but maybe this will help generate some good discussion and you guys will come up with some good ideas (or just support!) in the comments!

Do you have any suggestions? What do you think of the Georgia ads? What about Skechers for freaking toddlers?

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