Kids gain weight for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's bad choices, like pairing an all-cookie diet with sofa-surfing marathons. Sometimes it's just genetics. Sometimes it's emotional eating. For me, it was all of the above. And for my own child, it was only some of the above combined with an undetected medical issue. Regardless of how it happens, being known as "the fat kid" is hard.
Why? You're the last dodgeball draft because you're a big target. Surly lunch ladies judge your lunch choices. Your become the butt of jokes. Gym uniforms make you resemble Violet Beauregard and teachers assume you're lazy.
And years later, when you drop the pounds, you'll still be "the fat kid" inside. It's been 25 years since I lost weight, but when I saw my own child begin to take on the characteristics that tormented me through childhood, I panicked.
Last summer, my son – who'd always been slim – gained weight seemingly overnight. I'd been so preoccupied with his younger brother's health problems (I have a toddler with a rare genetic syndrome), that I didn't realize how bad his weight had gotten until his annual check-up. He'd gained 16 pounds in less than a year at only 7 years old. His energy was low. He had no interest in playing outside. He became defensive about his appearance and was sneaking food. He was my younger self reincarnated.
As an overweight child and advocate for every fat child I've ever taught in my classroom, I can unequivocally state that I could not have handled my son's situation any worse. It never occurred to me that his weight gain could be caused by anything different than how mine was – bad genes and bad habits. So in response I treated my child the same way my parents treated me: I criticized everything he put into his mouth, joked about his body, nagged him about being lazy, and expected him to fix it on his own.
My success rate with him was that same as it was for my parents – zero. I was an idiot. Fortunately, my husband pointed out my stupidity in time for me to make a change before I did too much damage.
Here's what I learned to do right:
Never, never, never make jokes or jabs about their weight.
They get enough of that of that from their peers. Imagine the person who is supposed to love you unconditionally is instead constantly pointing out your largest insecurity. It hurts more than you could ever imagine. I started gaining weight around age 7 and from that time on, my father didn't use my name – he only called me Chub, which he later shortened to Cub when my mother said Chub was cruel. He thought the constant shaming would help me lose weight. It didn't, and the damage stuck.
Teach them about good choices without being preachy.
This is tough. Unfortunately, providing access to honest nutritional education is not America's strong suit. I didn't know how bad some of my favorite foods were until I was in my 20s and studied nutrition. If I'd known the horrors hiding in blue cheese dressing, I would've stopped cold turkey – but if my mom had told me not to eat the blue cheese dressing because it's "fattening," I'd probably have gulped the bottle right in front of her. It's a delicate balance.
For my son, the medical condition which contributed to his weight gain requires him to avoid all gluten, which is tough on a kid. But instead of expecting him to go it alone, our entire family gave up wheat with him. It was rough at first but once he realized how much better he felt and knew we were in it together, it became a lifestyle rather than a sacrifice.
Don't keep their favorite foods in the house and expect them to avoid it.
If you wanted to give up wine would you keep a case of your favorite chardonnay in the fridge? No. So why keep a super-sized package of Double Stuf Oreos in the pantry while expecting your kid to make healthy food choices?
And don't say it's for your other kids. It can't be in the house, and one kid can't have it over the other. Make it easy for them to avoid triggers by not keeping bad snacks in your home. While our home never had many 'treats,' my husband loved a good cookie with his evening tea, but to help our son, cookies were replaced with fruits, nuts and, healthy homemade snacks. Treats are more exciting now that they're reserved for special occasions.
Get out there and get active with them.
"Go out and play" didn't work with my kid. It was an open invitation for whining, which would snowball into an argument, during which he'd be sent to his room – exactly where he wanted to be. Instead, "let's go shoot baskets" gets us both out and moving. And as mother knocking on menopause's door, I'm in no state to pass up any opportunity for exercise.
Acceptance helps far more than shaming because shame sticks.
My mom enrolled me in Weight Watchers when I was in 2nd grade. While other 7-year-olds were hopscotching, I was attending weekly weigh-ins with my own crew of menopausal church ladies while discussing the merits of cottage cheese lunches. It didn't work. I internalized this.
Shaming your child because they're fat doesn't work either, but making sure they know you love them regardless of their size can change everything. I made certain that my son knew again and again that I was proud of him for who he was, not for what he looked like. We stopped mentioning weight and size and concentrated on how to be healthy.
After I stopped nagging, shaming, and expecting him to fix the problem himself, I was able to figure out what was really going on and how to help him. Within months my kid dropped the weight and developed a love of sports.
We all want our kids to be healthy and happy and we know being overweight isn't healthy. Teach them by example. Join them on their journey and love them for who they are because being overweight is hard and acceptance can change everything.