Your 4-year-old now
Research shows that kindergartners already believe "thin is beautiful" and "fat is ugly." Television is a big influence. So preschool is not too early to start fostering a positive body image.
A great way to start is by not talking about your own body issues. If you're always dieting, complaining about your weight, or jumping on the scale, your children will get the message that these are things they should focus on, too.
The same goes for commenting about other people's appearances. Make it a family rule: No unkind comments about others' looks. People come in all shapes and sizes.
If you're worried about your child's weight, ask your doctor where she falls on the growth charts in relation to her own past growth pattern. Look at her BMI, or body mass index, a number that reflects the relationship between weight and height. Doctors use BMI numbers as an indication of health and good growth for children starting at age 2.
"By itself, BMI doesn't constitute a diagnosis of obesity, but pediatricians use it together with a physical exam, a detailed history from a child's parent or caregiver, and sometimes lab tests to understand how a child is doing, weight-wise," says pediatrican Lisa Simpson, president and CEO of AcademyHealth and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Obesity Leadership Workgroup.
Size diversity is completely normal, and a high BMI may be a normal expression of a child's genetic inheritance, says Kathy Kater, psychotherapist and author of Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too! So once you find out your child's numbers, she says, be careful about how you use that information.
Rather than trying to control the size and shape of your child, Kater says, put your efforts toward encouraging wholesome behaviors. Studies have shown that trying to manipulate how much kids eat can put them at risk for disordered eating patterns (such as overeating and compulsive eating) in the future. Strange as it may sound, in the long run, restrictions can lead to weight gain rather than healthy weight maintenance.
If you're concerned that your child might be heavier than is natural for her, don't restrict her diet or harp about what she should "stop doing" (eating junk food, acting like a couch potato). Instead, set up an environment that encourages good habits.
Offer nutrient-rich foods at regular snack times and meals. Limit computer, television, and other screen time. Keep devices with screens out of your child's room. Plan active outings as a family. Exercise helps kids appreciate their body for how it works rather than how it looks.
Should you worry about your child's weight if she's active? Read our expert's answer.
Of course, some children have trouble gaining enough weight to be healthy. An exam and BMI measurement may help with this, too. If your child has no underlying medical problems causing the failure to gain, offer healthy, calorie-dense meals and snacks.
The doctor may also recommend a high-calorie supplement drink containing vitamins and minerals that your child may not be getting. Learn more about helping a child who's underweight.
Even if your child's weight seems fine, it's a good idea to create a home environment that supports healthy choices. As a working mom of 10-year-old twins, pediatrician Simpson finds it helpful to use the "5-2-1-0" rule of thumb.
"This reminds me every day that we all need five servings of fruits and vegetables, no more than two hours of screen time (including TV and video games), one hour of physical activity and zero – yes, zero – sugar sweetened beverages," she says.
Building self-esteem is another prong in the attack against negative self-image. Compliment your child's efforts. Display photos of her around your home and workplace.
Above all, never criticize your child's appearance. Even one offhand comment can cancel out a dozen positive ones and linger in the mind far longer.
Is it normal that your preschooler keeps saying she's fat? Get the answer.
Your life now
Kindergarten around the corner means you have just 13 years until...college. If you haven't started a college savings plan for your child, make it a priority to look at your options. Even modest savings now, $10 a week or $100 a month, say, can grow to a sizeable amount by the time your child turns 17.
If your child attends a public elementary school, maybe the money you used to spend on daycare or preschool can start going into a fund. Or look at small savings you can make in your life, such as brewing your own coffee instead of buying it or shopping only sales for kids' clothes. Any little bit you can sock away will help.
For dozens more great ideas for frugal families, see our Family Finance Basics.
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