I will never forget having to enter a “health coaching program” as a sixth grader. I was 4 feet 2 inches tall and weighed just short of 100 pounds. I remember the stats well – those were the numbers I wrote on the cover of my food journal and activity book.
Given this experience, you might assume that I’m a stickler for a disciplined regiment of carrots, kale salads and circuit-training in my adult life. I’m modestly fit, but the truth is that I still struggle at living a healthy lifestyle and my kids do too. The relationship that my kids and I have with food is a case study of being a Good-Bad Dad (GBD).
We do some healthy things really well. There is a vegetable on the plate at each meal that requires eating – not “clean the plate or else” eating but, at minimum, giving it a try. Even though I think about my weight frequently, I try to avoid bringing it up to my kids – instead talking about my overall health and energy levels. Exercise is a part of most of our family activities so I feel reasonably good that my kids understand the basics of what being healthy means.
I certainly don’t do everything correctly. In fact, I know that I send mixed messages to my kids in regard to food and having a positive body image.
Too often I talk about the parts of my body that I’d like to change. I cringe when acknowledging that my kids hear me say that I need to “drop a few pounds” on a weekly basis. I make comments like this despite trying like crazy to disassociate health with weight for my children.
I had no idea this behavior would have an impact until a week ago. My daughter said to me, “Dad, I have love handles just like you.” Her face showed the same playful shame that lives in me – it broke my heart that she had learned this from a similar comment I made to my wife the day before.
It is not only the subtle ways I create weight consciousness at home – my reward systems need re-thinking. I tend to overuse sub-standard foods in celebrating achievements. I can hear myself now: “Good grades deserve two scoops of ice cream, right?” or “You made the team – burgers and fries for all!”
Let’s make one thing clear – I’m not the celebration police. I will never advocate for carrots and celery as cornerstones of a great party meal. Kids should (and need to) let loose – even with bad food occasionally. I do, however, see too much food-as-reward behavior at my home and in general.
Good-Bad Dad tendencies feed directly into this struggle. The hurried, overrun, tired, over-extended but well-meaning Dad often trades health and discipline for speed and efficiency.
In my family, eating together often turns into a ten minute sprint to get enough nourishment to move to the next activity. The busy calendar that I create is not conducive to healthy eating or quality time at the table. This race through dinner is an unfortunate “new normal” for young families everywhere.
As a GBD, though, I’m committed to making sure my kids have everything – including a healthy self-image and relationship with food. To do this, I need to recognize when I’m mixing my messages.
I have to be aware of how I talk about my body – get rid of the subtle put-downs and my consistent morning frowns into the mirror. Kids don’t have to hear the words to connect the “things I’d like to change” with features that they might not feel great about themselves.
The message to my kids cannot end at my front door – it travels with them to school, at activities and while visiting other households. As parents, we need support from each other through the daily grind.
When it’s my turn to bring after-game, pee-wee soccer treats, there is nothing wrong with the “old-school” orange slices and water. I hope that others might follow my lead and leave the pre-packaged Oreo’s and sugar-laced juice-boxes at home for the next celebration.
The program I entered in sixth grade taught me about subtle changes that make an impact. By redefining health for my kids I’ll become a steward to those lessons that changed my life so many years ago.
I’ll re-balance my GBD need to be efficient with the mission statement of all parents- to provide the world with healthy, well-rounded and socially-contributing future leaders.