by Dawn Clifford, PhD, RD
Please leave your son’s body alone. Your son’s body size and shape is just fine. He doesn’t need to fill out, bulk up, slim down, or get ripped.
Your son received genetic material from you and his biological mother. That DNA will largely dictate his body, both as a child and as an adult. So if there’s anything that doesn’t seem quite right about your son’s body, it’s all you (…well, at least half you)!
Your son’s body will change naturally throughout his childhood. He will grow out, he will grow up, and he may also remain a bean pole. Quit trying to change it.
If he’s a lean kid, you will need to resist the urge to tempt him with protein shakes. Have you tried those things? They’re disgusting, expensive, and totally unnecessary.
He will grow just fine when you offer regular meals and snacks that are somewhat balanced. Just make sure he has frequent opportunities to eat throughout the day and throw in a few different food groups here and there. Don’t overthink this.
If there’s no medical history that warrants nutritional supplementation, then he just doesn’t need to go there. Stop pressuring him to eat and drink to avoid being small. You’ll only mess with his hunger and fullness cues.
See, your son was born with a perfect internal regulation system. From the day he was born, he let you know when he was hungry and when he was full. It’s simple really. All you need to do is offer food every three hours or so and let him eat however much he’s hungry for. That’s it! Quit pressuring him to eat or not eat. If you just shut up and let him decide – get this – he will eat the perfect amount for his body! Seriously. He will.
Total shocker, right? He doesn’t need you to tell him how much to eat. His body will tell him that if you just leave him alone. Instead of talking to him about the food, just sit with him, eat your food, and talk about your day, the weather, school…anything else. If he doesn’t eat enough of something – don’t worry – he’ll make up for it at his next meal, or the next day, or week. He has systems in place to make sure he gets the calories he needs, so just relax.
The worst thing you can do for your son is to tell him that he can’t trust those natural cues from his stomach and try to override them with pressuring, bribing or coercing. It almost always backfires, not to mention completely messes with that father-son bond. (He is going to be a teenager, you know! So you’ll need all the father-son bonding you can get during those younger years.)
Plus, you’ll totally destroy his relationship with food, and these patterns will likely carry on over into adulthood. See, if he learns how to ignore his body cues as a child, how is he going to find his way back to those hunger and fullness cues as an adult?
Also, if your son is into sports, you may need to talk to his coaches. Coaches are notorious for recommending their athletes eat and drink 24/7 to bulk up. I’ve even heard of coaches telling their athletes to eat entire sticks of butter. Sticks of butter! What the hell?
Here’s the thing – athletes can perform amazing feats at all different weights, heights and body structures. They can jump, tackle, race, and throw.
And, more importantly, the total percentage of your son’s life that he will be an athlete is like a blip on the screen, if he’s even into sports at all. Most kids start a sport at age 8 or so and stop around high school. That’s less than 10 years as an athlete, which will hopefully be about 10-20% of his entire lifespan.
That means that 80-90% of his life, he won’t be an athlete and he will have to figure out how to live in his body without sports. And sure, he may go on to compete in college or as a pro, but the chances are slim, and even then, it’s going to happen or not happen based primarily on genetic build, natural talent and work ethic – not on those few extra pounds up or down.
But do you want to know the REAL reason I’m writing you this letter? What matters most? It is this – do you want your son growing up with body insecurities and self-esteem issues? Or do you want him to grow up feeling confident, supported, and secure?
When you tell your son that his body needs to be one way or the other, he hears the message that he isn’t okay just being HIM. He hears that he needs to look a certain way to be accepted in society.
Yes, you’re right – your son will be judged based on his appearance. It’s an unfortunate part of being a human being in today’s society.
And I get it – you probably want your son to bulk up, slim down, or get ripped so that he isn’t bullied. And this is because you totally care about your son’s emotional well-being. Awesome. But it’s not your son’s body that needs fixing; it’s society’s message that needs fixing.
And while it’s true that children who look like those portrayed in the media are probably less subject to bullying, trying to change your son’s body won’t work. First, it’s very unlikely to change in the way you want it to. And second, the bullies will just find something else to pick apart. Right? You remember what recess was like. No one is immune to bullying.
It’s true that weight stigma is real and it hurts. Trying to change your son’s body isn’t the answer though. It will only cause more psychological harm. The answer is to put an end to weight stigma.
If you hear your son making negative comments about his body or someone else’s, figure out where he came up with the thought. Was it something he heard at school? Watching a movie? Something a grandparent or uncle said?
Or, maybe it was you. If you’re concerned about your abs, or your biceps, or your love handles, guess who else is going to care about that stuff? They notice everything!
You can do your part by avoiding making comments about your body and your children’s bodies. While you’re at it, could you stop making comments about other people’s bodies too? Kids don’t miss a beat. If they hear you making fun of Aunt Sally’s four chins, they tuck that message into their sweet little brains and translate it to mean extra chins = unlovable.
In fact, refrain from objectifying women in front of your son too. There’s much more to a person than what’s on the outside. If you have any soul whatsoever, then what attracted you to your partner likely goes way beyond appearance. Teach your son that beauty isn’t only skin deep. Lead by example. Avoid “locker room talk.” It’s not cool; it’s degrading and offensive and needs to stop.
I realize I’m asking for the moon. Every. Single. Day. We’re bombarded with messages about body weight, shape, size and physical attraction. For men and boys, the messages include bodies of fictional superheroes, male models, body builders, and actors.
If there’s an opportunity – take a moment to educate your son that what he sees in the media isn’t real. While yes, there are body builders and male models, they have to make it a full-time job to maintain that physique, and that line of work may or may not be your son’s calling.
Look, you don’t have to be perfect. It’s totally impossible to protect your son from everything. And if you screw up, don’t beat yourself up. Just apologize and move on. Turn a misstep into a learning experience for you and your son.
Finally, stop telling your son to “man up” or “be a man.” There’s no one way to be a man. Men have different characteristics and qualities. Some are tender, kind, and thoughtful; others are boisterous, adventurous, and tough. Allow your son to be who he was meant to be, inside and out.
What does your son really need from you? He needs your presence, encouragement, guidance and most importantly, your unconditional love and acceptance.
One concerned mom
Dawn Clifford, PhD, RD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at California State University, Chico. In addition, she co-founded and is the current director of FitU, which is a peer mentoring nutrition and exercise counseling program on campus. Dr. Clifford conducts research and is an accomplished speaker in the areas of motivational interviewing and Health At Every Size®. She is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers and recently authored Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness. In addition, she is the current chair of the ASDAH Education Committee.