I have four kids. Two are completely dependent on others for their care: My oldest daughter has significant special needs and my youngest son only is 10 weeks old. I haven’t slept more than two hours in a row in months. I’ve spent a good part of the last two weeks dealing with the stress of trying to make sure my daughter with special needs doesn’t lose her health insurance. And I’m still carrying around at least 25 extra pounds in baby weight. I’ve gone days between showers and consider it a major accomplishment to pull off the yoga pants I slept in the next morning.

Yet people are always telling me that I look great. Whenever someone tells me this I laugh it off with a joke about lack of sleep and always with a mention of how really, truly I can’t look that great because I still need to lose so much weight. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my completely average-sized preschooler told me she was fat.

“No,” I assured her. “You are a perfect weight. You are beautiful. You are healthy and growing just right.”

But, she just pulled up her shirt and insisted: “Look at my tummy. I am fat.”

I was at a rare loss for words and wondered where I had gone wrong. It didn’t take me long to piece it together.

It wasn’t just my consistent correction of well-meaning friends when I told them I couldn’t possibly look great because I had to lose weight. It was also my unbridled excitement about the delivery of a new scale to help me monitor my weight, my phone calls to friends with questions about Weight Watchers, my good-natured teasing of my husband about how he should join a gym, and my frequently skipping dessert because I didn’t want to get even fatter. All of these seemingly innocuous comments, made within earshot of my daughter, led to her thinking that she, too, was fat.

It is not an understatement to say I was horrified that my off-handed comments added up to a perfectly normal preschooler with a poor body image. In order to ensure I put an end to anything I was doing to contribute to my daughter’s perception that she is fat, I turned to Kyle D. Pruett, a member of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board and clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, for advice.

Dr. Pruett recommends being careful about what you say around your children:

1) Eliminate ‘fat/thin talk’ from your home, and call it out when you hear it;

2) Talk explicitly about how you feel when you eat healthy and when you don’t;

3) Affirm that people don’t need to look any particular way to be happy;

4) Talk about how the way you treat people matters more than having a ‘perfect’ body – which doesn’t exist anyway;

5) Don’t fret or complain about your appearance in front of your children. Moms who do are quite likely to have daughters who do the same;

6) Let your children hear you compliment other family members and friends on their qualities and interpersonal gifts, not just their appearance; and

7) Call out the ridiculous when you see it (on TV, in movies and on social media), such as makeup on young girls, makeovers for children and body-building for boys.

Additionally, because what mothers do about their own and their children’s physical well-being trumps what they say, Dr. Pruett also recommends:

1) Take children for walks/runs/hikes/bike rides and let them see and feel what it does for you and them, emphasizing why how you feel matters more than how you look; and

2) Ensure that the whole family eats healthful meals and snacks.

My daughter hasn’t mentioned being fat since I started putting these tips to use at home. I’ve also found myself thinking about exercising and eating better for reasons other than just losing weight – to feel better, to have more energy and to create life-long healthy habits for myself and my family.

Since I’ve started focusing less on my weight, I’ve also looked at recent photos of myself with a new eye, and realized that all of those people telling me how good I look aren’t lying.

I do look great. Life is unbelievably hectic right now but I could not be happier that my long-awaited new baby is finally here. I love discovering a new side of my older children as they find ways to show their love for their baby brother and demonstrate that they are capable of taking on more responsibility. I’ve been reminded of how lucky I am that I have friends to help get my kids to school and bring us meals.

And you know what? All of this does make me look great – something I’ve been reminding my daughter of often.

The author is a Washington D.C. based mother of four.

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