#1. “You have to be careful or you’ll end up just like (fill in the blank – an obese family member.)”
Every time you speak to a child you’re giving them information they’ll use to create their self-identity. You don’t want to unintentionally help them to create a negative self-identity. Winding up obese like “Auntie Em” is something you probably want your child to avoid, but that’s not the way to ensure that it happens. You’re actually giving her a push in that direction.
Telling a child she might wind up like the obese relative is a mistake, but the bigger mistake is making an issue out of weight. Auntie Em is overweight, but that has nothing to do with her value as a human being. Children shouldn’t be taught that people are good or bad, or more valuable or less valuable because of weight or appearance.
If a child is to be compared to relative, let it be for a special talent or gift or for showing kindness. “If you keep practicing you will be just like Auntie Em. She is an excellent artist and you’re getting to be one too!”
#2. “You can’t have dessert unless you clean your plate.”
The more overweight a child may be, the more we seem to dwell on what he’s eating. We want them to eat a balanced diet with lots of “healthy food.” The problem of children preferring the nutritionally challenged kinds of foods like cookies, candy and chips makes it hard to get them to eat the food we think is good for them. Using the food they want to get them to eat the food we want them to eat ends up with us dictating how much they eat and overriding their own feelings of satiety.
Children should eat without a lot of adult intervention. When a child is overweight the natural reaction is to step in to help reverse the situation. Stepping in usually creates bigger problems and although it feels counterproductive, stepping back is a better strategy.
Using dessert as a reward for eating the “yucky stuff” only makes the dessert more desirable and makes the child’s insisting and whining to eat it, more intolerable. Meanwhile the nutritious food you want your child to eat becomes the yucky stuff of which he wants no part. Even if the child isn’t overweight, using food as a reward can set a child up for a lifetime of emotional eating.
Telling a child, “no dessert until you clean your plate,” is bad, but there is something much worse you could say to that child and that leads me to #3.
#3. “No dessert for you until you lose some weight!”
An overweight child isn’t a naughty child in need of discipline. If dessert is being served to everybody else at the table, the overweight child deserves it too. If you really think dessert is the problem and I suspect it’s a lot more than dessert, then it’s fair and necessary to change the dessert habits of the whole family.
Options include smaller servings. Tiny bites are perfect. Dessert can be just as enjoyable as a way to end a meal when it’s served in a tiny bowl or on a tiny plate and can be consumed in three bites. Nobody at the table needs to add more fat and sugar after a meal than that. Another option is to serve dessert less often, or to change what’s served for dessert most nights to fruit and save one night a week for a “special dessert.”
However you plan to approach family desserts, remember dessert should be served fairly and equitably to every person sitting at the table.