Earlier this year Fitbit released Fitbit Ace, a fitness tracker designed especially for kids. It was created to help motivate kids to move more and help families get fit and stay active together. But while encouraging joyful movement and healthful eating is smart, it’s important to recognize that it can also be tricky. The activity level of American children drops sharply between the ages of 9 and 15 and children as young as five express dissatisfaction with their bodies, according to a 2015 report from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that aims to help families make informed media choices.
So how can parents balance the desire to motivate their children without unintentionally planting seeds of self-doubt or self-criticism in their child’s brain? Intentional language and positive modeling are all key pieces of the puzzle, say experts. Below, some dos and don’ts of talking to your kids about health and fitness.
DON’T Speak Negatively About Your Own Body
Language matters when it comes to body talk—even when that language is self-directed. “I try not to discuss my weight or being ‘fat’ or anything like that because—surprisingly—despite my older son being only three-and-a-half years old, he picks up on everything, so I don’t want him to be conscious or feel that I am critical of myself,” says Washington D.C.-based family medicine physician, Shilpi Agarwal, MD.
“I try to focus on saying things like, ‘eating these foods helps make us stronger or healthier,’ not ‘fat or thin.’ And I just remind myself that not everything is about weight—I have tons of patients who are normal or low weight but extremely unhealthy. I also say things like, ‘I feel much more toned or fit’ when I am working out more or eating better.”
DO Acknowledge Your Personal Challenges
“We live in a world with a lot of diet rhetoric around us,” says Los Angeles-based clinical therapist Alyssa Mass. “Be honest with your kid—let them know you’ve really had to learn this, and that you’re a work in progress and that that’s okay. Some days you may eat in a way that makes you feel [healthy] and other days you may not. Every family is different and it’s not about doing it right or wrong, but about finding what works for you and your family to feel healthful and connected.”
DON’T Shame, Guilt, Ostracize, or Criticize
“Even if it works in the short term,” says Mass, “it’s very unusual that it works in the long term. It’s more likely your kid will just end up in a therapist’s office complaining about how their parents blamed them for being fat, eating too much junk food, and not being good enough at sports.” Rather than reprimand children in any way, Mass says it’s important to find forms of physical activity that are enjoyable, sustainable, and feel totally in line with kids’ natural inclinations. “Find something they like and make it fun,” she says. “If your son is climbing on the furniture, get him into a gymnastic class. If your daughter loves to throw things, buy a basketball hoop. If your kid likes broccoli let them like it. If they like cupcakes let them like those too. Food gains power when we assign it, keep it neutral.”
DO Celebrate the Non-Competitive Perks of Sports
When kids begin participating in more competitive settings or playing on teams that only define success as a win, it’s important to challenge that mentality and remind kids that fitness is about so much more than a final outcome. “Often, if they feel they’re ‘bad’ at sports or they have had a bad experience, they may not want to do it anymore,” says Mass. “Remind them—and show them!—that moving doesn’t have to be any one thing. Ask them how they feel afterwards. If you can help them see a connection between moving and feeling good, you’re helping them learn more about their own mind-body connection.”
DON’T Endorse Extreme Dieting
“Always focus on healthy snacks and being active as opposed to dieting,” says Agarwal. “Children shouldn’t calorie restrict and should never be told they are ‘fat,’ or need to lose weight. This can really impact self-esteem and affect body image.” Instead of creating a list of foods they can’t eat, focus on all of the great things about the nutritious foods you are serving them. And be sure to “keep healthy snacks available, like cut fruit and vegetables,” says Agarwal.
DO Keep the Conversation Going
It’s never too early to start initiating conversations about food and fitness with kids—and Fitbit Ace can give you an easy way in. “Anytime we’re giving something to a kid that’s already laden with messages, it’s our conversation about those messages that’s important,” says Mass. “And that conversation isn’t a one-time thing. Check in with your kid as they’re using their Fitbit Ace: ‘Hey, what do you think about this new tracker? Do you think it’s fun?’ And after a week has passed, ‘Do you still think it’s cool?’ You might be surprised by their answers, but connecting over the experience of the device can be a fun conversation, especially in our gadget-laden worlds.”
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.