One of the hardest things about parenting is separating our own identity from that of our child. We all dream of success for our child, but often these dreams are a fantasy definition of success and reflect more about what we want(ed) out of life than what our child wants out of life.
Learning to see our child as a whole person with their own personality, dreams, and passions is a daily practice. Here are some recommendations:
1. Stop wishing for a thin child
We live in a society that is cruel and discriminatory towards people who live in larger bodies. Because of this, parents believe that their children will be unhappy and lonely if they don’t control their bodies and keep them below the weight they would naturally be without restriction.
There are many messages that pop into the head of a parent who has a child living in a larger body. If your beautiful child is larger than you think they should be, you may consciously think things like:
She would be so much happier if she were thin.
She wouldn’t be bullied if she were thin.
She would be so pretty if she were thin.
These are very common thoughts for parents who have a child who is larger, but if you look deeper, it’s very possible that your real fears are about you – not them. Your subconscious thoughts are:
I would be so much happier if she were thin.
I wouldn’t feel like a bad mom if she were thin.
I would feel better about her if she were thin.
As you can imagine, having such thoughts about your child’s body is problematic. We’re not here to point fingers or assign blame though. Our goal is to expose the fact that you wish your child were thin because it would make you happier and more comfortable.
Now that you see that, it’s time to counter-balance your fears and concerns about your child’s body with compassionate acceptance of them as an individual.
Learn about Health at Every Size, and embrace the Body Positive movement, both of which assert (correctly) that body diversity is a natural thing (we can’t all be the same size) and that health is not tied to body weight. Educate yourself by reviewing our research library about weight, health, and related topics.
You’re going to think bad things about your child’s body. That’s normal in our society. But it’s not OK to let those bad thoughts linger and fester in your mind. Root them out and replace them with thoughts that are respectful of your child’s right to live in their body without restriction, hate, and disordered eating.
2. Stop wishing for a good child
Most of us were raised on some variation of the premise that children should be well-behaved, polite, and bend their needs to fit the family structure. But think about how that upbringing has impacted your sense of self-worth.
Unfortunately, most of us who were raised to sacrifice our true selves to serve the family feel a deep lack of self-worth. We tend to be hard on ourselves and others because, fundamentally, we do not believe that we are worthy, loved, and good just because we exist.
Most of us over-perform, whether at work, at home, or both, in an attempt to feel worthy of love. But, just like the perpetual cycle of weight loss and weight gain, no matter how much we perform in the pursuit of love, we still don’t feel worthy or fully loved.
It’s natural and normal for parents to raise their own children in a way similar to how they themselves were parented. But if we want to raise kids who feel worthy of love and affection without any performance or production, we need to parent consciously and thoughtfully, not automatically.
Our children suffer under the “good child” parenting model, because our kids feel they must perform in order to win our love. If they have not learned that they are already worthy exactly as they are, without modifications, they will unconsciously work too hard and never feel satisfied. They may turn to weight loss, under-eating, and over-exercising in an attempt to be worthy of our love.
None of us wants that for our kids.
So the goal is to stop wanting a “good” kid. Wanting a “good” kid means we want a child who does what we say, when we say it, without question. We want an obedient child who doesn’t take up too much space in our life, but who shows up looking great and seeming happy on demand. We want a child who makes us feel good about ourselves because we are still hustling for our own worthiness.
Instead of wanting a good kid, want a child who feels worthy exactly as they are. Want a child who knows they are deeply loved by you no matter what they do. Want a child who feels safe to express hurt, anger, fear, and other emotions about how you make them feel.
If you can do this, you’re more likely to help your child avoid behavioral addictions that seek to fill emotional holes. These include disorders like eating disorders, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping, gambling, and sex.
3. Redefine “success”
We all want our child to be successful, and that’s not a problem. The problem comes with how we define “success.”
Most of us are living under burdens that our own parents imposed upon us regarding what success means. Perhaps your parents wanted you to be rich, or beautiful, or brilliant, or a doctor, lawyer, or “good” wife. Maybe your parents wanted you to take over the family business, or marry the right person. Whatever they wanted, it shaped how we feel about ourselves and, in many cases, it drags us down.
Because success is not as simple as a degree, a traditional marriage, or a bank account. Success in life incorporates many aspects of life, including fulfilling work, meaningful relationships, and, to whatever degree possible, physical health.
But our society often twists these goals into more superficial measurements like financial wealth, a traditional marriage, and a thin body. None of these guarantees a successful life.
While fulfilling work, meaningful relationships, and physical health will bring us feelings of satisfaction and success, financial wealth, a traditional marriage, a hetero-normative sexual identity and orientation, and a thin body are worthless without meaning. No matter how much we tell ourselves that superficial measures of success will make us happy, we just aren’t built like that.
Our beliefs about “success” infect our children, and can lead them to a life that feels empty and meaningless, too. No matter how much money our kids make or how thin they keep their bodies, the pursuit of superficial success will never give them a deep and meaningful life.
Let’s help our kids define success in terms of meaning, depth, and true health. Let’s model what it means to be successful by pursuing meaning, fulfillment and health in our own lives. And remember, meaning and fulfillment don’t come with a trophy, cash, or grade. And health doesn’t happen when we achieve a number on the scale.
We are all someone’s child, and now that we’re parents, it’s up to us to redefine success so that our children can find true meaning, fulfillment, and success in life.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.