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You may not think twice when you look in the mirror and say, “I feel fat” or when you try to convince your kid that eating broccoli will make them healthy and strong even though you barely touch the vegetables on your own plate. But someone is watching you and learning from your actions—your daughter.
Even though the umbilical cord was cut long ago, you and your daughter are still connected. She’s influenced by what you say and do (or don’t do) as well as how you treat yourself and others. “The key issue is whatever we do regularly is what our children will think is normal and typical,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and co-author of "Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential." “We’re setting the baseline for them.”
It’s important to remember what messages—really, lessons—you’re putting out there on a daily basis. “Our children learn more from what we do than what we say,” says Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of "Stressed Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure." “Unless we walk the walk, our kids are going to know there is an essential lack of honesty and hypocrisy—that this is an area where what mom says and does are two different things.”
In other words, "do as I say, not as I do" can only get you so far. Here’s how to handle six common parenting pitfalls and become a more positive, beautiful role model to your daughter.
Fat-Talking is Contagious
When you’re trying on clothes, you make faces at yourself in the mirror and complain about your how fat your belly/thighs/hips are in front of your daughter.
Why it’s harmful: Mothers who engage in "fat talk"—namely, putting themselves down and continually pointing out their bodies’ “flaws”—influence how their daughters feel about their own bodies. “It’s so endemic in this culture for women to say negative things about their bodies,” says Cohen-Sandler. “It’s so socially acceptable—it’s almost required in some ways, like a bonding mechanism with your peers. It's sort of declaring that you don’t think you’re all that.”
The trouble is, vocalizing your disparaging views of your body not only chips away at your own self-esteem but also your daughter’s. Most women also have no idea how frequently they say negative things about their bodies, but daughters absorb every word. “Girls as young as five and six will absolutely pick up on this,” says Cohen-Sandler. “They’re already looking at their moms and picking up on their mannerisms and their nuances, consciously and unconsciously. They’re hearing this negative self-talk and they’re absolutely incorporating it, internalizing it and becoming critical of themselves.”
Living in a society in which thinness is praised and coveted, young girls have a hard enough time being self-accepting. “In this culture, it’s very hard to raise a girl with a healthy body image,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Research shows that by age six or seven, 50 percent of girls choose an ideal figure as one that’s smaller than their figure. By adolescence, 70 percent of girls want to be thinner.”
Solution: Be aware of what you say about your body in front of your daughter. “We as moms need to be fighting tooth and nail to be giving our children a healthy message about eating, weight and our bodies,” says Kennedy-Moore. Take a hiatus from “fat talk” when your kid is around and try to focus on what’s positive about your body, from the womanly curve of your hips to your strong arms that carry and hug your child. Keep sending positive body image messages to your daughter. “The message that we need to give our daughters is that their bodies are really important—they have to be nurtured and taken good care of because their bodies will serve them well,” says Cohen-Sandler. “The emphasis should be on health and strength. You don’t have to be falsely positive—girls see through that in a second. Be genuine and appreciate your body for what it does for you.”
Since we all have days when we’re less than thrilled with our figures, vent about your struggles with weight or complaints about your less than perfect body parts to your best friend, out of earshot of your child.
She's Watching What You Eat
You expect your child to eat her vegetables, but you haven’t touched a stalk of asparagus yourself in months.
Why it’s harmful: If you boast about the benefits of broccoli but never touch the stuff, eventually, your child will catch on. She’ll become aware of your less than stellar eating habits and will start to question you. “As soon as they’re old enough to argue back, they’ll say, ‘But you’re not doing it,’” says Kennedy-Moore. And if mommy isn’t eating her vegetables, how good can they actually be?
Solution: Of course, you can’t always control what your child eats for lunch at school, but you can set up the framework of healthy eating at home—and lead by example by extolling the virtues of vegetables while eating them along with your child. “These are lifelong lessons for your daughter,” says Cohen-Sandler. Of course, like many kids, your daughter may refuse to eat some or all vegetables at first. So get creative. Try sneaking them into their favorite foods, such as chopping up cauliflower and adding it to mac and cheese or blending a slew of vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, into a pasta sauce. Or get your kids involved in the cooking process. “There are so many great cookbooks for kids,” says Cohen-Sandler. “With very little effort moms can find a way to invite their kids to be part of the whole process.” Also, have plenty of fruit and cut up vegetables around to grab as a snack.
Couch Potato Tendencies
Your main source of exercise is hitting the button on the remote control.
Why it’s harmful: Childhood obesity affects one out of every six kids in the United States and part of that can be blamed on a lack of physical activity, including many hours spent vegging out in front of the TV. Research shows that kids are more likely to watch tons of television if their parents do, rather than getting outside and being active.
Solution: The good news? The same study found that parents don’t have to be physically active themselves to help influence their children to get moving. Instead, parents can switch off the television and encourage kids to get exercise by playing outside or walking to school with friends. There are also many ways a family can get fit together: If you have a pet, you’ve got a great, built-in excuse to get some exercise by taking a family walk with Fido. Or find other cool physical activities you can do together such as going on a hike, taking a yoga class together (or following a fitness video at home) or even just turning on some music and dancing together in the living room. Another smart way to weave in exercise: “If your child wants to talk about something or you need to talk to her about something, take a walk together,” suggests Cohen-Sandler.
Passed Down Potty Mouth
You could make sailors blush with your swearing.
Why it’s harmful: ““Little ones can be parrots,” says Kennedy-Moore. Once your child catches onto these catch phrases, they won’t just use them with friends and giggle over it. They can take those choice words to school and can get into trouble with their teachers.
Solution: Work on breaking this bad habit—you have a better vocabulary than that anyway! Start a swear jar and have everyone in the family put in, say, a quarter each time they swear. “It shows them that you’re trying to break the habit,” says Kennedy-Moore. Adds Cohen-Sandler: “You have to be mindful as a parent of what you’re teaching your kids about how to communicate because it’s likely your kid will pick up that style—and it won’t serve them well.”
Demeaning Her Daddy
You put down or demean your child's father (whether in a current marriage or after a divorce).
Why it’s harmful: This type of trash talking is highly toxic for children. “They are putting their child in a horrific position,” says Cohen-Sandler. “Girls are socialized to be peacemakers. They immediately feel that they have to defend their fathers. They feel like they have to take a position. Your child will wonder if what you’re saying about the dad is true. ‘How can I love my dad if he did that to my mom?’ The daughter is put in an absolute no-win situation. That is not appropriate for a child of any age.”
What’s more, it teaches your child that when you’re angry at people the way to deal with it is to talk crap about them. “That’s not the message you want to give your daughter,” says Cohen-Sandler.
Solution: Think about what kind of relationships and communication style you want to model for your child. “Is it one where you’re criticizing and putting down the person or treating them with respect even if there are differences?” says Kennedy-Moore. “The more resentful you feel towards your spouse or ex-spouse, the more you need to work to protect your child from those feelings.”
Although sometimes it’s easier said than done, “parents need to try to work together and support and respect each other—or their children won’t respect them,” says Kennedy-Moore. Of course, your feelings and frustrations are valid, too, but exposing that kind of negatively to your child is crushing to them. Instead, find another outlet for venting such as emailing or calling a sympathetic friend or family member when your child is not around.
Mixed Money Messages
You tell your child that you need to cut down on your spending and then you splurge on a new pair of shoes for yourself or new clothes for your kid.
Why it’s harmful: Kids learn about money by watching how you spend and save it—and not educating your kids to be responsible about money can backfire when they become young adults. In fact, parents have the greatest influence on students' financial habits, far above work experience and financial education in high school, according to a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs showed that financial literacy is greatly influenced by not only a parent’s education level but also the parent’s financial habits. According to the study’s lead author, Annamaria Lusardi, Ph.D.: "In today's demanding financial environment young people represent a powerful consumer group. They must make complicated financial decisions at an early age, and financial mistakes made early in life can be costly. Student loan or credit card debt can have a devastating long-term impact on quality of life and career choice."
Solution: Helping them learn about money, including smart ways to spend and save, can set them up to make sound financial decisions later on. Of course, no one (okay, maybe Warren Buffet) is born a financial genius. It’s learned. So it’s up to you to teach your child about good financial habits, such as how to budget. For example, if there is a toy or outfit they’re dying to have, help them calculate how much of their allowance they’d need to save up for it and how long it would take, while having them earmark a portion of their allowance (such as 20 percent) to put aside as savings. You can even set up a savings account for them where they can see online how the money grows with interest over time (free money!). Get your kids involved in good money-saving habits by having them help cut coupons from the newspaper or by sitting with you as you search for better deals online. Another smart move is to pick up some educational books that can help your kids become more financially savvy, such as "Money Sense for Kids" and "The Everything Kids’ Money Book." They’ll thank you later.
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