Discussing Weight and Body Image

February 4, 2013

By Amy Hackworth. Illustration by Norman Rockwell.

Vogue writer Dara-Lynn Weiss was fiercely criticized last year when she wrote a piece for Vogue’s “Shape” issue about putting her overweight 7-year-old daughter on a one-year diet. The idea of helping an overweight child become healthier wasn’t the crux of the criticism. Rather, it was Weiss’s approach that drew the fire—things like withholding food, heated public debates about what her daughter was allowed to eat, and what sounds like a pretty serious power struggle all the way around.

But Weiss’s pediatrician was concerned about the 7-year-old’s weight (93 pounds, 4’4” tall), and Weiss saw both the health risks and the social challenges that lay ahead, so she put her daughter on a weight loss program. Health risks, body image, self-worth, and societal acceptance are only a few of the complications of a childhood diet, and the portrayal of Weiss and her daughter is that the emotional cost may have been higher than the physical benefits.

Hers is not the approach I would have chosen, but I’ve never been in her shoes, and although it’s tempting to criticize her, I’m reluctant. Whatever my reaction to her story, the only real value for my family and me is if it helps us refine, or define, our stance on health and body image.

How do we teach our children the importance of health in way that’s…healthy? We can safely start with healthy eating habits and exercise, but too much pressure leads to confusion and attendant questions of self-worth. The focus can so easily shift from making healthy choices to emphasizing the way we look, or the promise of how we’ll feel about ourselves once we’ve reached a certain size. Then we buy into the illusion that being a certain weight will bring happiness, allure or power. It’s the most deceptive and repulsive message in modern media. So when does the attention shift from health to looks, and how can we protect children, especially girls, from it?

Beauty Redefined authors Lindsey and Lexie Kite offer an amazing list of suggestions that invite readers to “recognize and reject harmful ideals about beauty and health.” One of my favorites of their suggestions is to talk to little girls about more than how adorable they are. We’re all—little girls included—so much more than how we look, the Kite sisters claim.

Will we believe them?

P.S. — So many great links to share! Rejoice in Janell Burley Hoffman’s wisdom when her daughter complained about her weight. Watch model Cameron Russell discuss the interesting dynamics of being physically beautiful and the artificial construction of media beauty. Assess your family’s health aptitude and look through a few suggestions for talking to children about weight loss. Weiss’s new memoir is available now, and she’s interviewed here.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts! Have you ever helped a child lose weight? How are you helping your children (and yourself) develop a healthy body image?

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lauren February 4, 2013 at 8:51 am

I have that Norman Rockwell image framed and hanging in my house :)
Can’t wait to check out all these articles on body image- such an important topic!

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2 Tricia February 4, 2013 at 9:22 am

It’s not the weight or the weight loss that is like to trouble Weiss’s daughter as she grows up, it’s the power struggle over food.

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3 Annie February 4, 2013 at 10:06 am

Very much agreed. Even if a child ends up losing weight under those circumstances, I’d be concerned that she’d develop a very unhealthy mental relationship with food and eating and her body.

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4 Sophie February 5, 2013 at 7:16 am

the chances are very likely that she would and will, but it isn’t just about the weight or the food. children at that age are highly ill-equipped to deal with separating “i dislike X about you” from “i dislike you.” unless proven otherwise very strongly in the years to come, this poor little girl may very well feel inadequate and a source of shame to her mother, where she should feel loved and appreciated. these feelings of “what can i do to make her love me” can not only lead to serious issues like body dysmorphia and eating disorders, but depression, anxiety, ocd, and various other extreme mental health diseases.

how do i know? because i was that girl, once upon a time. i still struggle with acknowledging that whatever hells my parents put me through from ages 7-17, they did out of love and concern. but it certainly didn’t feel that way to me.

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5 v8grrl February 4, 2013 at 9:22 am

As parents we need to be kind but firm. As an RN I all to often hear how an morbidly obese adult “just can’t quit eating at McD’s” or question why we , at the hospital, continue to talk to them about their weight and lifestyle changes which must occur. Much of this could be avoided by teaching the young moderation,health, fun in workouts, and consequences. Diabetes is more than just Diabetes. It leads to kidney failure, heart failure, blindness, limb loss….it’s not just a matter of sugar. More children now than ever are starting their lies with diabetes…If you can stop it at age 7…do it.
Leave your kids with a chance to Love their own healthy bodies at age 35…it’s a great gift
Little girls and boys are adorable, especially chubby ones, and I know most parents will agree…but we must make a decision as to when the baby fat is becoming dangerous. It’s a slippery slope

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6 Mary-- The Yellow Door Paperie February 4, 2013 at 12:27 pm

“Leave your kids with a chance to Love their own healthy bodies at age 35…it’s a great gift”

This quote is so crucial. We are not raising a body (healthy or unhealthy) we are raising human beings.

Thank you for your comment, it made my day!

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7 nicole February 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

Thanks for this post. I really liked the beatyredefined link. I have 2 daughters and I often find myself telling them how cute they are (I think its ok to say that sometimes).I have wondered how much I would say those words if I had a son. I don’t think I would as often. Its interesting to note how differently we talk to boys and girls. My friend and I were just talking the other day about how a lot of people call their daughter “princess” and call their son “buddy.” I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about why we use those words and what they mean.

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8 Madeline February 4, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thanks for sharing these links. I’m always trying to find positive messages to share with my 12-year-old daughter who thinks she is fat. These are great articles to help boost self esteem and promote a healthy body image (not just for girls, but boys too). Thanks again!

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9 mommio February 4, 2013 at 9:49 am

A child who is obese didn’t get to that place on his or her own. The parent/s have a great part to play in that. And young bodies are not mature bodies. There are lots of changes going on that result in awkward stages, including pudges, missing teeth, new teeth that are too big, legs that are out of proportion to the rest of the body, etc. I believe adult society tries too hard to make children conform to adult norms. If you are teaching your child good eating and activity habits and monitoring the junk food intake, then it all tends to work out well by adulthood. The best method I believe is to take the long view and don’t panic along the way. We can create a lot of unnecessary angst and guilt in our children that is totally unnecessary. (And repeated studies show that those who are on the heavier side of norms are just as healthy as those on the lighter side of norms, and maybe more so. I do believe much of the “concern” about weight is based on concerns about physical attractiveness, rather than pure health concerns. And the child eventually comes to understand that, and again, it creates unnecessary angst.)

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10 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity February 4, 2013 at 9:53 am

I have two sons and a daughter (all young adults now) and we encouraged them to eat healthily and exercise as young children, but I refused to get into a power struggle with my children about food as it is a battle you can’t win. Fortunately, they were not fussy and would try anything by taking at least one bite. I definitely told both my sons and daughter that they were cute/handsome/adorable/pretty etc.

All three of our children were/are slim so it surprised me when my daughter started becoming worried about her weight and not eating snacks when she was in Grade 8. I looked up the signs and symptoms of anorexia on the internet so I would know what to look out for. I reassured her that she was a good weight and that she would need to put on some weight to be a normal healthy adult. I also helped her identify that she was probably under stress about entering high school. She is a perfectionist and I think she felt that her weight is something she can control so that is what she focussed on. I never mention the word “diet” as I think it sends bad messages to youngsters, but rather I just eat healthier. My daughter came through that stressful time and regained a better food balance and body image as she got older.

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11 becca February 4, 2013 at 1:17 pm

So lovely that you reassured and educated your daughter! Brava Mama!

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12 Marissa February 4, 2013 at 10:08 am

I was given a teen-magazine subscription for my 15th birthday. My mom was appalled. She would make sure to get to the mail-box before anyone else so that she could throw it in the garbage without anyone seeing it. I knew she did this and it bothered me…until I managed to get to it first and read it. It was horrible.
At my young age I discovered a great truth: the media is wrong…most of the time. I had grown in a family who played hard, (together,) ate well, (together,) and never discussed things like weight or even beauty. I knew I was valuable and beautiful and capable.
Now that I’m a mom I try to emulate the lessons that my parents gave to me. They did it so effortlessly. I can only hope that in 20 years my children will have the same outlook on their upbringing as I do.

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13 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag February 4, 2013 at 10:17 am

I nearly fainted the other day when my 6 yr old twirled around in some dress and wondered aloud if it made her “look chubby”. My husband and I never ever ever discuss weight in any kind of negative way, in fact we never mention it at all. The only message about food and bodies we’ve ever discussed in a lighthearted way is that we try to eat (mostly) healthy food so that our bodies will work well and be strong. But clearly, that issue of weight and how that relates to the way bodies look is out there. I know she’s heard things at school and from friends and that terrifies me, b/c I know I can’t control those external factors. Once a friend of hers called my kiddo fat during a playdate at the friend’s house. Which was both hilarious and terrifying b/c that friend is legitimately on the heavier side and my daughter barely weighs more than a piece of paper. I don’t know if the friend was echoing something she had heard about herself, or what. Of if that’s just a fallback childhood insult. It makes me sad that we live in a world where 6 yr olds are even aware of such things.

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14 smee February 4, 2013 at 11:08 am

I’m not sure having “Obvious Guy” talks in our house worked very well, so we took this issue through the side door. As the adult in the house I was in control of what was brought into the house for meals, snack, desserts or trips dining out, so ultimately it was in *my* power to control the diets. As with all children, growth spurts meant the waxing and waning of all 5 of our children’s weights, however if I noticed anyone gaining inappropriately I just changed the diets for everyone, no singling out one child, everyone ate the same, all our activities amped up, and the weight would fall off before it got to be a “big deal”. It’s easier to lose or tighten up fewer pounds than wait for it to become a health issue. By the time the kids grew old enough to be out of the house and making their own choices their preferences of wanting good food and activity were already established. In their teens when this topic came up we were able to talk about it sensibly and honestly, and again, before it became a matter of restricting food – usually more activity was all that was needed. Now they are all adults, some with kids of their own, and they seem to be hanging on to the same habits. Lots of good food, lots of activity, and nipping any troubles in the bud with more activity.

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15 Nicola February 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Absolutely agree with this approach!

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16 Tricia February 4, 2013 at 11:10 am

An older brother gave me the nickname “fatty Patti” at age five and it went through the neighborhood for years. My very thin older sister teased me, and worst of all, my mother teased me. I think I could, even at that young age, reconcile to siblings teasing, but my mother’s carried such a mixed message. I became a basket case-and started dieting in first grade. But I had to diet in secret, or I’d get in trouble. The thing is, I wasn’t even overweight! We were a household full of processed junk food. My mother was an extremely self conscious woman about her own appearance-she had cut herself out of most pictures in her own high school photo album! As a teenager, (and having been through every diet imaginable) I read nutrition books, learned to cook fresh vegetables and fish, and developed lifelong healthy habits. I’m extremely careful about how I approach body image and nutrition habits with my own teenage daughter. I see mothers apply their own insecurities to their daughters all the time. Have a reasonably healthy pantry and lifestyle, know that all weight fluctuates from year to year, and let the rest be. It works.

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17 Tamsin February 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

My kids are still very young, but we’re trying to focus on taking care of our bodies and being healthy and happy rather than how we look. I asked my two year-old son the other day when it came up if it was important to be pretty, and he looked at me like I was a loon and said “No, mom!”

I think it’s important to focus on the whole person and help kids to feel good about who they are at an early age, before insecurities about how they look really show up. If you can help them attach value to who they are as people when they’re young, I think you get a long way towards a healthy self-image that isn’t based on how they look.

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18 Valerie February 4, 2013 at 11:21 am

I grew up in house with literally no processed food (with the exception of Lent which meant we’d get Mac-n-Cheese on at least a couple Friday’s), mom made everything from scratch and this really translated to a healthy diet. I think for me the lack of discussion about my changing body as a teen was more of an issue. Had I just understood that my “pudginess” was more about going from being a bean-stock to a young women with curves, I think my relationship with food, today, would be much different.

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19 Eleanor February 4, 2013 at 11:38 am

I have 2 daughters, and I teach preschool. While I certainly tell my daughters and students they’re cute (because they are!) I have always made a point of complimenting their intelligence, sense of humor, creativity, kindness, hard work, etc. Possibly to an extreme – when my younger daughter was 2, if anyone told her she was cute, she’d say “No I’m not, I’m sweet and smart.” Maybe I should start complimenting modesty and humility…

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20 Linda K February 4, 2013 at 11:44 am

Love your daughter’s response. Fantastic! Well done mom!

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21 shadygrove February 4, 2013 at 11:50 am

I love this topic! I have a whole blog about it! (Not the one on my signature line — this one http://thefullybelly.wordpress.com/wp-admin/). The most serious problem with trying to get anyone to lose weight is that *we don’t know how to do it.* There is no scientifically supported long-term method of successfully losing weight, except weight loss surgery, which is not a pediatric intervention. Worse, nearly everything people do to lose weight is actually associated with later changes that are negative: poorer health, poorer well-being, long-term weight gain, or no changes at all. So parents (and doctors) have no business prescribing weight loss to children. Instead, at every weight, we should be helping kids to love their bodies and live happily and healthfully inside of them — eating and enjoying good foods in a wide variety, moving joyfully, and knowing that they will be loved no matter what they look like on the outside.

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22 Melissa February 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Thank you for saying this. Because it’s the truth we don’t hear often enough. NO ONE knows how to permanently make someone lose or gain weight. On top of this weight is not an indicator of health.

And I’m so very sick of people not understanding young bodies, including doctors. MANY kids grow out (put on visible weight) before they grow UP. Teach them to enjoy food, teach them how to prepare food, that they are amazing the way they are, and yes moving joyfully!

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23 Sarah February 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm

We have to be careful with what my ten year old eats or he can start to get pudgy around the middle. We are also try to be careful about how we approach this, because I’m equally concerned about self perception and all that. Often it is things like not buying sugary cereals, making sure he has a lot of outdoor running around time, things like that. I also have a couple kids who could stand to gain a few pounds, one in particular that we are actively trying to get her to a healthier weight. Luckily no extreme issues here.

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24 Rebecca February 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

I love how we are trying to look closer at how we nourish our body and our Self. Though I have 3 boys, I myself am not immune to feeling the affects the way our culture places weight and eating on the shoulders of young girls, our daughters, and even upon ourselves. I recently had an interaction with a young girl in my son’s 3rd grade class that I wrote about here: http://pomegranateandseeds.blogspot.com/2013/01/our-hunger-my-hunger.html
xxoo

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25 Kathryn February 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm

My daughter is overweight. She eates modestly, more vegetables than any other child her age. We rarely have dessert, we eat whole grains, don’t eat fast food, etc. etc. She is active and healthy. She has, we believe, a metabolic disorder. Nothing so far has shown up on tests and we are doing our best not to make her feel that we are testing about her weight. None of these discussions above are addressing different body types. My child is not fat because we eat crap. She is not fat because she watches hours of TV (we don’t even have cable) or plays video games. Her body is not thin. She is still beautiful and healthy. CHANGE THE DISCUSSION. There are a multitude of body types out there.

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26 Alison February 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Thank you. There are plenty of thin people that are very unhealthy. Lets have a discussion about healthy blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol, instead of only focusing in the numbers on a scale.
I continue to struggle with anorexia and it blows my mind how many people told me I looked great despite the fact I was clearly underweight and unhealthy (missed periods and joint problems). Tell your daughter to do what she loves, it will all fall into place.

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27 Rebecca February 5, 2013 at 7:32 am

Kathryn, thanks for bringing up this point. So many people would like to blame parents for the way a child looks, but sometimes there are other issues at play, issues you’d never know just by looking at a family. For instance, my daughter is adopted (which simply means we don’t understand her biological genetics) and has multiple things she struggles with. Gross motors skills and coordination, for one. She doesn’t run around or play like other kids as much as I encourage her to do so. We have to get creative to get enough physical activity. She’s eight years old and very tall, but she’s also heavy. Does this bother me and make me worry for her? Yes it does. But at the end of the day, I do my best to provide good food choices, we talk about being healthy, we talk positively about the state of her heart and how beautiful she is. I hope and pray she has courage to look beyond some physical limitations, both the ones she has and the ones her peers have.

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28 Grace February 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm

This topic is so important and I plan on looking through all the links. From my eighth grade year to my sophomore year of high school I became supremely aware of my chub. I had been a really skinny kid before 3rd grade and my mom would constantly tell me to “eat more.” I distinctly remember her asking my pediatrician if I was underweight (I wasn’t.) I started putting on weight in 3rd grade; I was chubby but it never bothered me. I was never teased for it for some reason like other kids. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I started to worry about my weight (as did my mom.) I remember having a subscription to Teen Vogue and just feeling really, really sad that I didn’t look like any of the skinny teenagers in its pages and I legitimately thought no boy would like me if I didn’t. So I started dieting, limiting what I ate to 1000 calories, eventually 1200. I became a hardcore calorie counter (it’s a sickness I tell you.) The crazy thing is I was also in swimming (since 4th grade) and I would still only eat 1200/day. My mom encouraged me at first and then quickly switched gears when I started losing too much weight. At one point I was 120 at 5’7″. I honestly don’t know what made me stop, but I know that I began to like the way I looked and it’s probably because of my mom that I gained an extra fifteen sophomore year for a comfortable weight of 135 the rest of high school. It could have turned into something worse. Of course, I still struggle daily with food but I balance it out with healthy choices and cardio. The media is just obsessed with perfection and for a young girl (or boy) the concept of being perfect is such a huge deal.

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29 Elizabeth February 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I’ve always worried about this. Both my husband and I were small kids and are still generally small. My husband weighs 135 and is 5’11″. My kids range in age from 2-10 and are all in the small side. My girls are especially tiny (my almost 9 year old still wears size 6 clothing). So being overweight isn’t really much of an issue with my kids, but because they are so tiny it’s easy for them to eat unhealthily And not see the results of it.

We try to be example to the kids of good health by exercising often And eating a generally healthy diet. We have our treats occasionally, but generally we try to eat lots if fruit and veggies, not lots if sugar, lots of whole grains and not many snacks.

I hope we are developing a healthy, maintainable lifestyle for my kids of moderation and lots if fun exercise.

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30 Elisabeth February 5, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I’m really glad you shared this- I think people often see someone who is slender and assume that they don’t need to worry about what they eat/how much they exercise, but that’s certainly not true. Just because you’re skinny doesn’t mean you live a healthy life. I am on the small side as well, and whenever I say that I really need to eat better or exercise more, people will give me looks or say something along the lines of, “I really don’t think you need to worry”. But that’s not true- everyone needs to develop healthy habits. I think it’s important that we focus on being healthy rather than what our bodies look like in terms of weight.

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31 Maike February 4, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I find the only way you get your children into healthy habbits is to celebrate them yourself. And I mean: celebrate. If you don’t enjoy the healthy food and the exercise, why would they?
You can talk all day about it or you can take them on walks or for a swim, a bike tour, in the snow, on the trampolin, playing soccer in the park. All fun things. And very addictive, too.
And there is so much healthy food out there that is really tasty and fun to prepare together.
It should not be about will power.

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32 becca February 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I think that it is such a difficult & delicate fine line. We all want HEALTHY and successful and happy children that grow into wonderful adults. Body health is a double edged sword. As an american society we not only uphold an unhealthy model for how our bodies should look, & we also feel like failures when our bodies don’t do or act or look like we want them too. At the same time our appetites for something MORE become insatiable. We want more love, more of life, but we often hold this at arms length because we want to be at the perfect size first. I remarked on this a while back after I saw a young girl in my son’s class put herself down: http://pomegranateandseeds.blogspot.com/2013/01/our-hunger-my-hunger.html
I would love to know what you all think. xxoo

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33 Sarah February 4, 2013 at 6:28 pm

I don’t think weight issues are just about willpower or unhealthy foods. You can eat healthy food and still have issues with portion control or eating out of boredom, anger, sadness, or stress. I think it’s important to get to the bottom of those emotional issues as part of a well-rounded approach to weight management with kids.

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34 Maike February 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

I think you are right, Sarah! That is such an important part of it all.
I just sometimes think, growing up and learning that food is something happy and amazing and something you can create together, than it is less likely used to compensate emotional issues. Maybe.
It shouldn’t be something you ever feel guilty about.
Also: it is good when kids learn, as they grow up, they can always eat, when they are hungry and they don’t have to control themselves. The having-to-control-yourself is often the bottom of weight issues. I was a very slim teenager and started to diet just to prove myself I can do it. And I gained weight immediately. Just because eating and not eating suddely seemed to be everything my day was about.

I was also certain about bein very unathletic and that build up to a lot of problems. When I go out and run for 30min these days, that alone solves a ot of my problems. I don’t know how it works, but i does.

I wish I would have learned some of that stuff when I was growing up.

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35 Joy February 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm

We can all be an agent of change in our own sphere of influence. When I work in my son’s classroom the girls will sweetly say “You look pretty today”, my response is, of course, to say they look pretty in return, but I always add something like “Do you know what I admire more than someone who is pretty? I value someone who is a good friend, or tries their best at whatever they do or shows a spirit of generosity or bravery…” These are the messages they need to hear from us. If nothing else, to help combat the media surrounding them, that continually objectifies women.
Also, I regularly tell my kids to go outside and play…and say “no” to soda :)

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36 Heather Young February 5, 2013 at 8:05 am

Wow, the world really has done a number on us. We can say all we want that it’s about “health”…no, it’s not. Don’t fool yourself, it’s all about how we look. The side ways glances we give to our children to make sure they look thin enough so we can say we’re doing something” right”, the judgements we give other people who are doing it “wrong”. It’s just all sad. Of all of the wonderful things our bodies do, what they look like is dead last on my list.

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37 Melissa February 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Wonderful comment!

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38 sandy February 5, 2013 at 8:06 am

Children cannot drive or have money to buy their own food, so an overweight child is a product of her/his parent. If a child is being starved, its child abuse, it should be the same with an obese child.

My only objection to the article mentioned is that she waited till she was 17, she should have been keeping her healthy and at a proper weight all along. My philosophy is, if you don’t want them to eat it, don’t buy it.

I have 3 daughters and sure they have often scoffed at my not letting them eat something, kids get angry anytime you say no to anything they want, so what.

All that pales in the pain a fat child endures, boy or girl. Lets not be in denial, about sports, dating, day at the beach, you don’t have to be rail thin, but obese, that sucks for a kid.

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39 Melissa February 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Wow, obesity is not a marker of child abuse considering the ENORMOUS variety of reasons a child might be obese, including disability. That is quite an ignorant statement based on stereotypes.

You should do your best to keep your kids healthy, but sounds like you also need to teach them not to be mean to fat children. Obesity sucks for a kid because other kids are rude, THAT isn’t the fat child’s fault but the taunting kids.

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40 sandy February 7, 2013 at 7:26 am

Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re disabled its even more important to have a healthy weigh. If your weight as a child is due to a medical problem a pediatrician always tries to find a way to keep the child at a healthy weight.

Obesity sucks for kids, yes partly because other children are cruel, but also because its uncomfortable, you can’t run without getting tired, your thighs rub together, its difficult to bend, you don’t fit in child size things like chairs desks, there are a myriad of reasons. Never mind the long life habits you build, making a fat unhealthy adult.

Parents have a responsibility to their children to make their lives easier, not more difficult. Feeding your child with no regard to their weight and health is not good parenting. It’s cruel to make a child heavy, then leave then to deal, and blame their difficulties on others.

Parents need to say no and learn to deal with tantrums, too many parents are lazy.

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41 Rebecca Alexis February 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm

It is so important that we teach our children to learn how to care for themselves in a variety of ways. That we teach them to nourish their body with delicious, quality food, but also how to nourish their soul as well. I wrote a bit (okay a lot!) about hunger, not just our physical hunger, but our spiritual hunger as well, here in this blog post.
http://pomegranateandseeds.blogspot.com/2013/01/our-hunger-my-hunger.html

I would love to know your thoughts. When we take care of our Self, I believe we are better able to teach our children to do the same.xxoo

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