Positive body awareness and confidence is important for a child's development. Parents can start these conversations as early as kindergarten—here's how.

By Erica Lamberg
January 12, 2021
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Positive body awareness and confidence can help your kid throughout their lifetime. Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can lead to health issues.

"If kids don't learn to feel confident in their bodies and are not taught that all bodies are acceptable, they are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders, mood, and anxiety disorders," explains Kerry Heath, LPC-S, NCC, CEDS-S, a Phoenix-based licensed professional counselor and certified eating disorder specialist.

Research shows children begin to talk about body issues as young as 5 years old. That's why it's important for parents to start these conversations early. Experts explain simple ways parents can approach lessons on body positivity—even before a kid starts kindergarten.

Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Teach Kids About Their Body

Encourage your toddler and preschooler to get to know their bodies. Parents can start naming body parts—hands, feet, fingers, toes, noses, and eyes—as early as 6 months.

"By 1 year, a basic understanding of their bodies emerges, and you should encourage them to point to and name some body parts," says Natalie Geary, M.D., a pediatric and family doctor and founder and medical director of Veda Health in Miami.

As kids start getting a bit older, Dr. Geary suggests a parent can stand with the child in front of a mirror and say things like, "Where are your ears?" And, then say: "Your ears are amazing, they help you hear." Keep in mind, kids typically begin to recognize themselves in the mirror between 15 and 24 months.

And try and use proper names when discussing genitals, too. "Nicknames like 'pee-pee' imply that there is something implicitly embarrassing," notes Dr. Geary.

Promote Health Before Weight

Body positivity and a positive body image should be more about health and wellness than weight and appearance—and it is important kids know that. "There is no one size, shape, or BMI that equals beautiful," says Heath.

Focusing on healthy messages like these are key, and so is moderation. "Refrain from discussions about food rules, what is not allowed, and what you cannot have," adds Heath. "Instead, role model a well-balanced diet, including all the food groups, while demonstrating how to appropriately portion meals, snacks, and desserts."

Encourage Kids to Be Active

Physical activity goes hand in hand with good health and children should be encouraged to find activities that they like to do from a young age. This helps send the message that exercise is enjoyable. "Families who make movement and exercise a part of their routine will more likely raise children who exercise on a regular basis and feel comfortable in their bodies doing so," says Heath.

Try not to refer to exercise as a way to shed pounds. "Kids who are made to exercise to lose weight will not only learn to despise exercise, but they will learn to hate their bodies as well," cautions Heath. And avoid weight teasing in any form, which research shows can lead to weight gain, binge eating, and extreme weight control measures.

Of course, exercise may be tricky during the pandemic, which has put a lot of strain on kids. "Many children are attending school online at home where there's no playground to help them release energy and get a healthy dose of exercise," says Ilan Shapiro, M.D., a Los Angeles-based pediatrician and medical director of health education and wellness with AltaMed Health Services. Luckily, there are simple ways to exercise right at home together and make it fun to boot.

Have Healthy Conversations About Food

If your child struggles with food, it's important that the dinner table doesn't become a battlefield, but rather a safe place for discussion. "Fill your table with foods that are nutritious and talk about why it's important that we eat vegetables and fruits with our meals," says Dr. Shapiro. "For example, tell your children that vegetables and fruit give our body energy to play, be in a good mood, and help us to grow strong and healthy."

Use simple terms that kids can understand. "Organize the food your family eats into three groups—always, sometimes, and rarely," suggests Dr. Shapiro. The always category is the healthy and nutritious foods that we have on a daily basis like protein, salad, and vegetables. The sometimes group can be things like takeout. As for the rarely category? Think chips, a candy bar, a doughnut, or ice cream. "Explain that the rarely category might be foods that taste good but are high in sugar or fat and are not healthy for our bodies," says Dr. Shapiro.

Correct Misinformation

A child's exposure to media and unrealistic beauty standards is unavoidable, especially in the age of social media. But it's important to check in and correct misinformation about food, exercise, their body, and other people. Let your kids know that people are not to be judged by their weight, whether they be over- or underweight just as they shouldn't be judged for having physical disabilities or even a different skin color.

"Teach children that all bodies are good bodies so that they do not learn to judge themselves when they fall short of the unattainable societal beauty standards, which can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders," says Heath.

Set a Good Example

As a parent, the best thing you can do to promote body positivity in your young child is to teach by example. "It is crucial to show our children that we respect ourselves for who we are and value others regardless of their appearance," says Heath.

Don't forget that young children mimic what they see and hear. "Monitoring our own language about our bodies and the appearance of others is important in the development of our child's attitudes about body image," says Heath. "Accepting yourself right now in the way you look is the best thing for your child."

How can you do this? Heath advises focusing on simple things like exuding a positive attitude when wearing a bathing suit or when getting dressed. "Any messages that you cannot do something until you look a certain way or get down to a certain weight will only give [kids] the message that you do not think you are good enough," she says. "Eventually they will wonder if they are good enough."

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