A mother of an 8-year-old was desperate. "My daughter is gaining weight by the second," she told me. "I am so afraid that I have passed on my troubles with food to her, and I don't know whether to remove all candy from the house, take her to a doctor, or put her on a strict diet. Help!"
"What is your daughter's favorite food?" I asked.
"Chocolate," she said.
"Does high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes run in your family?"
"No," she said.
"Is your daughter's health good?"
Desperation calls for radical measures, so I said, "On your way home, stop at the store and buy enough chocolate to fill an entire kitchen cabinet. In your kitchen, designate one cabinet The Chocolate Cabinet and fill it to overflowing with the chocolate you bought. Now, tell your daughter that this is hers and hers alone. Tell her that she can eat as much of it as she wants and that you will fill it back up when the cabinet gets even a tiny bit empty. Do not criticize her. Do not watch her with hawk eyes. And make sure that cabinet is brimming with chocolate. Wait three weeks, and then let me know what happens."
She looked at me in disbelief. "Have you lost your mind? If I give Gracie free rein over chocolate, she will devour every single piece before I can get to the store and buy more. She will gain a million pounds. I will create a monster!"
"Try it," I said. "Let's see what happens."
Fast-forward three weeks. The desperate mother says, "When I first told Gracie about the new plan, she didn't believe me. She waited until I left the kitchen, and then she plowed through the contents of her cabinet before I could change my mind. I filled up that cabinet four times that first week (with gritted teeth, I admit). But when Gracie realized I was not going to criticize her and that I was absolutely serious about letting her have as much as she wanted, she ate less and less. By the second week, I only had to buy a little chocolate, and by the third week, none at all. She is more relaxed around food. She is losing weight. I am a chocolate-cabinet convert!"
Does this story (it's true, by the way) make you excited? Slightly hysterical? Have you come up with 25 reasons why this wouldn't work at your house? You are not alone.
However, while some of your reasons may be based on fact, most of them are about your own relationship to food and hunger and abundance, not your children's. And here's the litmus test: Ask yourself what would happen if you filled one cabinet with food you wanted but believed you're not supposed to have. What would happen if you let yourself eat it without criticizing yourself? I can't swear to this, but I bet you have (at least) 25 reasons why that wouldn't work.
It's not about the food. Although the chocolate-cabinet idea was radical, I was almost positive that what Gracie wanted wasn't candy. She wanted her mother's (positive) attention. She wanted her mother to trust her. But mostly, she wanted to believe in and trust herself, and only way she could do that was by first learning those skills from her mother. The drama around food and weight gain was the language that Gracie was using to communicate with her mother. The real issue is never the food.
My mother was a fat kid whose own mother took her shopping in the Chubby section of Macy's. Growing up, my mother felt self-conscious, ashamed of her body around boys, clothes, socializing. Because she loved me and didn't want me to suffer the way she had, when I was a kid she began watching what I ate, restricting certain foods from my diet, telling me I was getting fat.
How did the hawk-eye, restrictive approach work?
Not so well. In response, I began hiding frozen Milky Ways in my pajama pants, sprinting past my parents' room and sitting over the trash can in my room eating the candy bars as fast as I could, ready to spit them out if my mother opened the door and caught me. I began feeling as if I needed to look a certain way for her to love me, eat certain foods for her to approve of me. And so I began living (and eating) a double life: When I was in front of her, I'd eat cottage cheese and chicken without skin. When I was out of her sight, I'd stuff myself with everything I wasn't allowed to eat in her presence. Food became the language of our relationship. And although, as my brother often points out, I've made a career from the dysfunction that resulted, I would not recommend this path to anyone.
When I hold my online workshops, mothers from all over the world ask me questions about food and their children. Mothers from Montana and New Jersey, Thailand and Brazil all have the same concerns. They all love their children and don't want to pass on their pain to their daughters (or sons); some of them have children who are already showing signs of starving themselves or stuffing themselves. They all want to know: How do I best love my child when it comes to food? What will help her the most?
I tell them, "Attend to your own relationship with food first." Be honest with yourself about what you actually believe. Do you believe you can't trust your hunger?That if you really let yourself eat what you want, you'd start at one end of your kitchen and chomp your way across the country? Do you believe there is an abundance of what you need, want, love?
After you begin exploring your own relationship with food, be mindful about what you communicate to your children. Deprivation, force, and shame do not ever, under any circumstances, lead to positive change. If you judge your children, if you create a moral standard about body size, if you withhold approval based on what they weigh, nothing good will come of it. They will begin judging their bodies, hiding their food, and defining their worth by what they weigh.
And ask yourself this question: If you could fill a cabinet with anything -- food, attention, time -- what would it be? Chances are, it won't be chocolate. Commit to being lavish with yourself with what you really need. As you do that, you will become a living example of self-care and trust and love. You will be who you want your children to become. Believe me, they'll notice.