A child can no more control his or her size than they can control their height or hair color or gender or sexual preference. It’s also true that children are born knowing how to eat. They know what they want to eat and they know how much to eat. Too often, well meaning parents step in and interfere with that natural process which can lead to years of disordered eating if not full blown eating disorders. If your child seems like they are eating more than they "should" or that their body is bigger than you think it "should" be, if their size has always been consistent on their growth chart, it's time to check your assumptions. Who says how a big a person is supposed to be? I believe there is a myth among parents that left to their own devices, kids will eat and eat and eat. That is simply not true. The body is a biological machine and when kids are taught to listen to it's cues, they will eat the amount of food that is right for their bodies. That amount might be more or less than a predetermined amount that you think is appropriate. It might be more or less than the serving sizes on a box. It might be more or less during a given meal, a given day or a given week depending on how the child is growing and what his/her nutritional needs are for the time period. It is not up to you.
A child also knows, at a very young age, when they are somehow letting you down with their body size. You may not say anything, but the eye roll when the child takes a 2nd or 3rd roll at the dinner table or the sigh of exasperation when the child asks for 2nd helpings is taken in by the child, consciously or unconsciously. They can feel in their bones that something is wrong even if they can't articulate it. They know they are letting you down and that you are judging them for their eating habits and their size. This truth alone can affect their body size as they move through life.
There are and always will be different sized people in the world and different sized people in families. Trying to control a child's weight is only going to make what is not a problem into a problem. It will become a lifetime problem with how the child feeds him/herself which often turns into how the child feels about him/herself. Our world is hard enough to navigate with all the messages of unworthiness if we aren't a certain size or shape. Our kids need our support not our disdain. Even when they do get support at home they are still up against a fat phobic world from the time they can comprehend their first commercial. It's imperative that we at least do what we can in the confines of our own homes.
Support from parents can change the world one child at a time. As each child enters the world feeling whole and complete, they will share that message too. As parents everywhere recognize the diversity in their own children, children can then recognize and accept diversity in the world. What a beautiful place that would be. Not because we all look the same, but because we all celebrate and accept our differences.
No parent wants to intentionally hurt their child, but your well meaning comments about eating habits or weight are doing just that. It's understandable that you want to save your child from the pain they may feel in the world if they are going to be navigating it in a larger body, but resilience training starts at home. When your child knows they are loved no matter what, they can take that feeling out into the world with them and it's an extra layer of protection against the pain that weight stigma and fat phobia can cause. But to have this stigma start at home is one of the most painful things a child can experience. It's rejection from the very people who brought them into this world. And they know it even if you think they don't.
So what can a parent do? Check your own fat phobia and take any and all steps necessary to reduce it. Surround yourself with diversity in your social media and take notice of how diet culture is trying to get us all to look the same. Throw out magazines that celebrate the thin ideal. Stop yourself when you are tempted to comment on someone's looks or appearance, especially your child's. Become aware of the fact that weight does not equate to health and your child is not predisposed to a life of health problems because they are a higher weight than you or the rest of your family. A higher weight is not predictive of health problems, but weight stigma and weight cycling through dieting can certainly cause both mental and physical health problems. You may be harming more than helping when you interfere with a child's natural weight.
Speaking of helping, a great resource that can help you learn how to feed your children is a book called Help without Harming by Ellyn Satter. Ellyn promotes the idea of division of responsibility in eating. The parent decides what to eat and when and the child decides how much. It is that simple. I will also caveat her work in that even sweets do not need to be constantly regulated and limited. While most children love sweets, they will also learn their own limits with regard to sweets if they are left able to explore that relationship. Sweets will habituate and become no big deal if they aren't made out to be a big deal. And all the stress and tension you feel at mealtimes trying to get your child to eat certain foods or specific amounts can be completely resolved using Ellyn's methods. Relaxation and trust is the name of the game, not restriction and control. (The only time this is not appropriate for children is when they do not have the interoceptive awareness necessary to know what is happening in their bodies, such as kids with autism spectrum disorder.)
If you start this with your children at a young age, they will develop into natural eaters whose weight will settle out at whatever place their body wants to be. We all have a set point weight where our bodies are the happiest and the more we leave ourselves alone the easier it is for our bodies to find that place and settle there - moving up or down through time within a specific range depending on circumstances and life events. The more we try and control and manipulate this natural place, the more out of control and unpredictable weight can be, fluctuating up or down depending on where we fall in the restrict and binge cycle that is inevitable when dieting. And those fluctuations have been shown to have more negative health consequences than simply leaving the weight alone in the first place.
One more thing I really wish parents knew and shared with their children. Listen up - this is super important. Young women about to go through puberty are supposed to gain weight. It's an evolutionary necessity in order to be able to bear children and propagate our species. This does not mean that all women will get hips or curves but it also means that lots of women will. I can't tell you how many times I have heard that a young woman went on a diet at age 12 or 13 as she started to gain this weight and well meaning parents encouraged the diet out of fear for their children's social lives. These young women then go on to experience years if not decades of trying to change their body or feeling like their body is unacceptable. Dieting in puberty is exactly the wrong thing to do at the wrong time and it shocks me that it happens over and over and over. Weight stigma is the real cause of low self esteem. It has nothing to do with the weight itself.
Every young woman going through puberty needs information and encouragement and support from the women in their lives who have already experienced it. They need to know that ALL the changes are normal and it is really genius on the part of our biology. What a shame, literally, a shame that is put on so many young women as their bodies start to grow and mature. Why does this happen? Oh yeah - fat phobia again. If it weren't for that, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Let that be what you take away from this article. It's not the weight on your child's body that is the problem, it's the weight you put on their shoulders when you support and encourage the fat phobia in our society today. Let this be a lesson to all parents and all people out there to step away from the war on fat and step into the war on fat phobia. That is the true enemy and what we should all really be afraid of. Your kids are instinctive natural eaters and body regulators and the less you get involved with their eating the better off everyone will be.