Chubby, Chunky, Heavy Big: How Do We Talk Compassionately to Our Children About Weight?

Many parents are watching their children getting bigger and bigger and wonder, when do I say something? How do I help them when I can’t even help myself? I have had the honor of hearing many people’s stories about their feelings about their own weight and their children’s weight. I have learned that feelings about weight gain and loss are deeply embedded in our personal histories, our exposure to distorted media images of what people look like, and our ability to protect our sense of self from feeling "less than" because of our weight.

When I have listened to parents share their stories, I often feel sad when I witness a painful memory resurface that causes a quiver in their voice. Or when I see a parent attempt to squint away tears when they remember a name they were called or a sharp word from a classmate. Their pain is real. Their confusion as to why and how their children are gaining too much weight is equally real. I am encouraged when a parent instinctively shies away from using fat-shaming language and tries to approach the subject gently. Many of the parents I have spoken to avoid using words like ‘fat’, ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ when they discuss their child's weight. They often used words like ‘big’, or ‘heavy’, and refer to the whole family as such. ‘We are big people,’ or ‘Our family has always been on the heavy side.’ Or sometimes they affectionately speak of their child's size as in, “She’s always been my chunky monkey ” or “He’s my little chubster.”

Their affectionate terms for obese or overweight is how I chose the title of this post. I want everyone reading to feel as if I am speaking to them, not over them. Some articles on children’s weight gain, or on how to be a healthy family, use words that come directly from research papers, or clinical guides, or make a huge assumption that the reader [parent] has time, energy, and money to do all the things they suggest in the book.

The fact that many parents are working several jobs, and still need to get help from food pantries or food stamps is never addressed. How much money you make and how many jobs you work has a huge impact on how healthy you can be and how healthy your family can be. These are difficult times, with many issues competing for parents' time and money. Parents need everyday language with realistic solutions that help them and their children stay emotionally healthy during this obesity epidemic.

I remember one single mom called me at the Center for Best Practices for Early Childhood Obesity Prevention to ask about the guidelines that recommended that children only get two hours of screen time per day. “That’s almost two episodes of Dora the Explorer!” she shouted into the phone. “It’s sooo not in reality. I have to get ready for work in the morning, and with Dora on, the kids stay busy so I can get everything ready to get us out the door.”

Now some people would urge her to get better organized, or give some helpful hints on how she could prepare things the night before, making the morning rush less hectic. Or advise that she insist that they all eat breakfast together, like that really happens, or could even possibly happen, in most families today. My approach was to tell the mom that Dora is her helper. If the screen time in the morning helps her then use it. But see it for what it is—just one strategy for this period of time in their lives until her children are old enough to be left alone. It doesn’t mean that her situation won’t change and that she won’t always be able to choose the healthier thing to do for her children. But for now it is okay to do what is easiest, less stressful, and keeps everyone safe. She is keeping her children safe while she gets ready for work, which is her number one priority. She is acting in their interest as best she can for where she is in her life.

And children are resilient. Yes, perhaps watching two hours of Dora everyday may have some impact on her child’s development, but so would leaving her children unattended while she is rushing around getting ready for work.

This obesity epidemic has taken an emotional toll on parents that has largely been ignored in parenting books and magazines. Telling parents to tell their child to eat less and move more has not stopped nearly 60% of US children from gaining too much weight. Nor has it helped 57% of adults who are overweight or obese. Telling a parent who is overweight or obese themselves to set an example of good health for their children and model healthy behaviors is like telling a drowning person to swim.

Obesity is widespread for many reasons. Parents need to understand all of the reasons a child may be overweight and have the tools to address the epidemic with compassion and empathy. Everyday we hear chatter on television, or read in magazines and newspapers about how big Americans have become. While fat-shaming and bullying have sadly become part of our culture, it has been especially alarming that people in leadership roles are trying to 'normalize' fat-shaming and bullying. Demeaning statements about people's weight and women’s bodies in this recent election brought fat-shaming language and bullying behaviors to a new level. Terrible words were uttered into microphones and tweets were sent about the size of women's bodies without any remorse or apology. And the children heard. Sadly, schools across the country are reporting a surge in bullying and name-calling during and since the recent presidential election.

Our children struggling with rapid weight gain need us more than ever to be compassionate and kind to them. They need adults to keep them safe and give them a compassionate space to grow and thrive. Children need to know that we will protect them from fat-shamers and bullies and not turn a deaf ear to demeaning remarks about different body types and sizes.

How do we create a safe, engaging space with our children to talk about the obesity epidemic? How do we help children understand that no matter what their size there are ways to prevent diseases like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension? How do we help children feel supported and thrive in a fat-shaming culture? My upcoming posts will address these questions and more, because a likely reality for many children as they become teens, and then young adults, is that they will struggle with weight gain and weight loss perhaps for the rest of their lives. Weight gain and loss takes its toll on children in a physical way and it also can lead to deeply felt residual emotions that may become part of their psychological make-up. Being tender and caring during this obesity epidemic is essential to helping children become a healthier weight and happier people.

Another question I am often asked is “So what do you think is going on? Why are the children so big, or heavy, or chubby, or chunky nowadays?” Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as too much time spent playing video games, or fast food, or no recess at school. Instead, we should think about the childhood obesity epidemic as the result of a perfect storm that has been brewing for nearly forty years. There is not one single thing we can point to that explains why some children are affected and others are not. Many parents will be nostalgic for times past. They will reminisce about when they played outdoors freely, watched television only after their homework was done, and drank soda only on special occasions. That world feels like it slipped away and isn’t something their children will experience. There is kind of resignation about the modern world, and obesity is just one more problem that comes with it. Other parents feel alarmed, confused and helpless about how to stop their child from becoming ill with hypertension, diabetes, sleep apnea, and other lifelong illnesses. Children are getting bigger and bigger, and many parents are feeling a sense of urgency to act, say something, and do something to help their child.

Because obesity is a complex problem, we must be careful when we accept easy answers for why children are gaining weight rapidly. If we believe that obesity is simply the result of eating too much and not exercising enough we are putting the blame on the children and more often, the parents. We need to take into consideration all the reasons that caused children to become chunky, chubby, heavy or big. There are many reasons children are getting heavier, some reasons are well known and accepted, however, may reasons are still being researched. This post is the first of a six part series on how best to talk about rapid weight gain with children and how to protect children from fat-shaming and weight bias at home, at school, and at the doctor's office.