As I was walking home from Chelsea Piers last week, my 5-year-old son said, “Mom, I don’t want to be fat.”
I thought about how to answer this. “Why do you say that?” I asked. “Were you talking about this at school last week or holiday camp?” He said no to the above, so I asked him what he thought it meant to be fat and how he thought someone could get that way. “You get fat from eating too much food all the time,” he replied, to which I responded, “Right, so just eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. Keep active and you will be fine.”
Meanwhile, I was pushing Bobby and his brother in the single stroller—Bobby who was standing on the stroller frame and leaning against me rather than walking as his brother slept inside. I assumed he couldn’t be all that worried if he let me push him home despite what his new concern.
As we walked along the city streets, my thoughts swirled. I began to wonder whether I should have explained to Bobby that bodies come in different shapes and sizes. Should I differentiate between healthy and fat? Should I take advantage of the moment and give him a reason to eat more fruits and veggies, which he tends to veer away from? Should I stress that some people are just destined to be larger due to genetics?
As parents, we need to think about how to answer these questions before they come up—something that would make addressing them when put on the spot a whole lot easier. I’m not sure that I ever considered that Bobby would make such a statement, especially since we don’t allow words like ‘fat’ in my household—but he did.
While we’ve discussed that it’s not nice to call someone fat, especially to his or her face, I know that both my boys are exposed to the word all the time; we even heard it used in the Muppets movie. He hears his cousins and friends use it all the time. And just, the other day, his friend called our cat fat. (Bobby made sure the child knew we don’t identify things by that term in our house.)
It’s both funny and frustrating, because sometimes, even when we try to raise our children one way, the world around us doesn’t necessarily let us. Ban certain kinds of language in your home, and they’ll pick it up in the park, in the supermarket or on a play date. But whatever we decide to allow (or not allow), I encourage all caregivers and parents to think about this: What message do you want to send to your child?
Have you ever had to discuss weight issues with your child? How do you view the word “fat” in your family, and what words do you use to facilitate a positive body image in your household?