Yesterday I was at Walgreens with one of the girls I nanny. We had stopped at the store to get poster board for her sister’s project and I was thirsty, so I grabbed a drink on the way to the register. We rang up and I handed the cashier money and went left. We got back into the car and the child looked at me and said, “you know, if you’re thirsty you should really just get water. That’s unhealthy, but water would be healthy.” I felt like my head had spun in a complete 360. This girl, the youngest of three, was sitting in the backseat of my car putting my intake into the exact kinds of categories that I have been avoiding for the last 11 months.
How did you handle it, Kristin?
Well, reader, I did the very adult thing of ignoring the 7-year-old child in my care. I wasn’t exactly sure what to say, my mind was racing through fact-checks, questions, anger, frustration, coping skills, a log of everything I’d had to eat, sadness, fear and anxiety.
I’ve spent a year training myself not to think these thoughts. I’ve set boundaries and educated my friends and family on what is helpful and not helpful to say to and near me. I have laughed at random people saying things in public or online. But I hadn’t been told to my face that something I was doing was “unhealthy,” that I was eating or drinking something “bad.” I hadn’t faced this situation yet, let alone with a 7-year-old.
Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t stop there. She went on to tell me that her teacher could “only gain weight, she never loses weight.” We were less than five minutes from the house and I was ready to dump her on the side of the road and just drive right along out of town and back home to live with my parents. Once again I had the very adult response of ignoring her. Maybe she just needed to get that out and she would move on back to talking about horses and soccer and legos.
She continued to babble to herself about her perception of her teacher’s weight. This is when I broke, “Stop. You don’t need to say these things. It’s not nice.”
“But it’s true.”
“I don’t care if you think it’s true, talking about other people’s bodies is something we should never do. It’s not nice and it’s none of your business.”
I don’t know that I portrayed what I really wanted to say, but I got the point across because she shut up for the rest of the drive.
We got home and she ran inside to go do whatever activity was on her mind. I stood in the kitchen and took some deep breaths, recentering myself and coming into my wise mind. I got started making dinner for her and her sisters. A few minutes later she came and sat down at the table with her plate and started to eat. I was certain that we were through the woods and free of food talk.
“Is (insert food she was eating her) healthy?”
“You need the nutrients you get from every kind of food.”
“But is it healthy? Does it have like sugar or stuff in it?”
*I’m leaving the names of foods and drinks out of this for the sake of triggers, but I’ll just say she was eating a perfectly “normal” source of protein.
“How many calories are in a (fruit)?”
“I don’t know” –unfortunately, I do and so many other things that I wish I could erase from my mind and refuse to put into the mind of anyone else.
How does this happen?
How do we come to have 7-year-olds judging foods as “good” and “bad”? How do we have children commenting on the weight and bodies of people whom they should be admiring and learning from? How do we have 7-year-old girls concerned about calories and exercise?
I was disgusted and bewildered, so I reached out to my beautiful treatment friends.
Through relaying the story I got to thinking about my own childhood and eating habits. I didn’t develop my eating disorder until I was 17. I had some experiences in middle school that turned my eye to the world of dieting (sometimes referred to as “healthy eating”) and exercise, but I can’t remember any food rules for my childhood; I remember my mom suggesting fruits and vegetables with snacks or when I was hungry close to dinner time. I was encouraged to eat well-balanced my meals (my mom packed my meals up until I graduated high school and cooked dinner most nights). Our idea of healthy eating was balance, moderation and well-developed meals. But that’s not always the case.
What percentage of children do you think have this unhealthy mindset about food? I’m guessing it’s a higher number than we’d like.
How do we raise children (and help adults, for that matter) to have healthy relationships with food?
Most kids will go on to find balance in their lives and not develop eating disorders, but some will. And not because of models on magazine covers or fad diets, but because they were taught to fear food in their own homes through small comments and habits. They were raised to say that certain kinds of food or food with certain ingredients will hurt their bodies.
I thought that way for a long time too and still do sometimes. And I have an eating disorder. I have an eating disorder because I believe the same things some of these kids believe. If you told parents that do you think they would care a little less if their child ate sugar and carbs? Do you think parents would decide that a healthy child, mentally and physically, is more important than restricting their intake and fostering fear around food which is an essential part of life?
If you’re reading this I just want to remind you that food is nutritious. You need all different kinds of food to get all of the energy your body needs to operate. You need broccoli, but you also need cookies. Not only physically, but mentally. A restrictive world is a very sad one, believe me.
I want to look every young child in the eyes and remind them to live their lives, be children, learn mental and emotional resilience, go to school, play, do whatever calls your heart, but don’t spend a single second concerned over your body, your food or comparison. Don’t do it. You’ll spend so much time doing that in the future, a problem in and of itself, don’t make it worse by wasting your carefree youth also.
I wish I could go back to the mind I had as a young girl. A mind that knew nothing of calories. A mind that was concerned over bedtime and fights with my brother. A mind that loved to move my body because moving is a kind of communication for kids. A mind that loved life.
Yesterday I had a 7-year-old asking me how many minutes she would need to play to burn off an apple. Be careful what you say around the kids around you, you never know how they’re listening and what effect you’re having.
As for me, I’m going to continue to impart little bits of wisdom on these girls while I’m here, I can’t rewind what they’ve heard and seen, but I can start a new narrative, I can tell them some truth.