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The Overweight Child

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

What's a parent to do?

"Do I look fat?" says my 10-year-old son as he stands in front of the mirror.

"You look just right" I respond with a big hug and kiss. But I don't think he believes me.

"Should I go on a diet?" asks one of my teenage daughters.

"You don't need to diet but it's always good to eat healthy," I carefully respond. I don't think she believes me either.

With "Lose weight quick" and "The new new diet" and "Eat all you want and be thin" bombarding us wherever we go, it's hard to treat weight as a non-issue. Our children are not immune to this societal pressure and the ensuing peer pressure. Far from it.

In my family some of the kids got my husband's genes -- the quick metabolism, eat all you want and stay thin (and have many others hate you) kind. And others got my genes -- the slow metabolism (gotta blame something), eat very little (and hate the rest of the family!) kind. What's a parent to do?

Just as my protestations that it doesn't matter are irrelevant (it's an all-pervasive cultural value in which rich women are now expected to be the thinnest -- with the most spa trips and personal trainers -- as opposed to the fattest -- with the most food and indolence). Since we don't live in those earlier times (where there was no penicillin or children's Tylenol but it was attractive to be plump!) we have to deal with our world. It's not a non-issue for our children so it can't be a non-issue for us.

Nagging is not the way to go. It simply never is.

On the other hand, nagging is not (let me repeat, NOT) the way to go. It simply never is. Ask yourself if nagging has ever convinced you to change or has only led to deepening resentment against the nagger. But even more than that, anyone (adult or child) who is significantly overweight in our society knows it. It is a constant source of pain and frustration. Thoughts of what to eat, what not to eat, what they should have eaten, what they shouldn't have eaten, crowd their minds. It's an obsession. And it affects our children's sense of self-worth. Particularly our daughters.

The last thing this child needs is a parent pointing this weight issue out to him or her. You really thought she was oblivious? He just needed you to tell him? A child whose self-esteem is already in jeopardy needs support (this is actually true of all issues), not criticism. In fact, even a confident child needs support, not criticism.

It's painful to watch our children struggle. We hurt when they hurt. Not-so-subtle hints, exercise programs, diet coaches may make us feel like we're doing something constructive. But here's an important parenting tip. It's not about how it makes us feel. It's about how our children feel. And how do they feel after those oh-so-helpful suggestions? Lousy -- and alone.

There are, in my imperfect experience as a parent and as an overweight child, only two things a parent can do. Three if you include the ever present need for prayer.

The first is to fill the house with healthy alternatives. I don't advocate removing treats because I think it creates out-of-control cravings (hoarded chocolate, eating cookies in the closet – you've heard the stories) but there should be a lot of fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks around. Our children should have choices. But how they exercise them is still in their hands.

The second -- and harder, yet more important --– tip is to have patience. Of course this applies to everything in parenting and is a constant challenge. Most of us will reach that point in our lives where self-discipline is an easier muscle to flex. Some of my girls changed their weight -- and themselves in other ways too -- as they transitioned from elementary school to high school. Some did it in seminary in Israel (although for others the opposite was true!) And some as they approached dating and marriage.

It wasn't a result of nagging or pressure. It was just the right time. We've all experienced in our own lives times when self-control seems easier than at other times. When it does we have to grab it and hold on for dear life.

This is not a promise. Some of us will struggle with weight and food issues our whole lives. Some of us and some of our children will not succeed in conquering it. Yet the job of a parent remains what it has always been -- to be loving and supportive. And to ask the Almighty for help.

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