Nine-year-old boys are asking why they can't have six-pack abs like Jacob from Twilight and eight-year-old girls hate their "chubby" tummies. What can we do as their parents to help them feel better about themselves? How can we teach them to appreciate who they are instead of judging themselves for who they think they're supposed to be?
In my book, The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive, I offer tips, tools, games and projects to help parents empower their kids with the self-esteem they deserve.
Here are some fun ideas to get you started.
A great way for your son to understand why the bodies he sees on TV are not age appropriate is to show him!
Step 1. Cut out pictures of male models and TV/ film celebrities from magazines.
Step 2. Find pictures of your son as well as other kids in his age group.
Step 3. Cut the heads off of all them (It sounds gruesome, but here comes the fun part!)
Step 4. Start mixing and matching the boys' faces with the adults' bodies so he can see for himself how ridiculous it would look if a real kid had the body of a grown up. Remind him that his body is growing and changing all the time and the best thing he can do is take care of it instead of wasting time wishing it were different. I did this with my 11-year-old and it was a hoot!
"All about ME" book:
Help your child create a scrapbook that's all about them. Use pictures, drawings and whatever mementos you can find to celebrate all of their favourite things, including: hobbies, friends, family, songs, vacations, pets, school projects they're proud of, etc. Make it as simple or ornate as you'd like! Without even realizing it, your child will be thinking about all the things that make them unique and interesting. This is a terrific way to take the focus off what they look like and put it on who they are. Have your kids add to their scrapbook whenever they'd like!
Take a field trip to the mall:
Since so many of the people we see in movies, magazines and on TV look a lot alike, it's easy for kids to forget that people really do come in so many different shapes and sizes. A good reminder is to bring them to a mall, preferable on a busy Saturday afternoon, grab a drink, sit on a bench and just watch the people passing by. Not only is this a simple way to get an important message across, it's also an excellent way to spend some one-on-one time with your child and let them know how important they are.
Role model exchange:
Ask your son/daughter to make a list of five people they admire or look up to. These can be people they know (an aunt, a favourite teacher) or someone who is famous for a special talent or accomplishment. While they're working on their list, start making your own. You can simply write their names down on paper or look for pictures of them to share. When you're both done, take turns talking about whom you chose and why you chose them. By discussing the traits that make someone a good role model, your child will realize that it's more important to have a big heart than a tiny waist.
While Superman, Batman and Ironman do a splendid job of keeping the streets safe in movieland, real life heroes don't always have ridiculously perfect physiques. It's important for kids to understand that there are heroes around them every day, doing amazing things without the help of a cape or perfectly chiselled muscles.
Spend some time talking about what makes someone a hero and think of people in your own community who fit the description. Everyday heroes can include people like doctors and nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters, for example. Next, go visit your local firehouse or police station and meet these heroes in person. From what we see on TV (and firefighter calendars), it's easy to forget that some of the bravest and strongest people can look just like us! By seeing that ordinary looking people can do extraordinary things, your child will learn that they can grow up and accomplish amazing things as well.
The last thing we want is for our kids to let a negative self-image hold them back from being everything they want to be. We need to empower our kids with the kind of self-confidence that will encourage them to try new experiences and take on new challenges without letting body image worries get in the way, and we need to start NOW.
Self-worth shouldn't be measured in pounds.