“Mama, You’re Fat”

“Did you hear about what my son said?,” asked one of my favorite moms recently. No, I hadn’t heard, but with that opening I sure wanted to. Jenn has an adorable and precocious 3-year-old, and I love to hear about his antics.

The story she told went like this …

“We were sitting on the couch cuddling up after a birthday party for a friend’s child and I was showing him some photos I’d taken. We came to a picture of him sitting on my lap eating birthday cake and ice cream. “Mama,” he said, “your leg looks so big.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Fat. Your leg is fat.”

“My leg is fat. Does that mean that I’m fat?”

“Yes, Mama, you’re fat. I wish you wasn’t fat.

“What does ‘fat’ mean? What don’t you like about it?”

“It means you eat too much bad things and it’s bad.”

“It’s bad? Would it be good if I were thinner?”

“Yes, it would be so good.”

Jenn went on to talk to her little guy about how people can be self-concious about their bodies, and sometimes it hurts their feelings when other people call them fat, so even though he hadn’t hurt her feelings because she always wants to hear what he’s thinking, he might not want to tell other people that they’re fat.

By the time Jenn told me about it a couple of days later it was clear those words still stung. She had gained some weight, and while she wasn’t obese or unhealthy, it was something that nagged at her.  She had already resolved to start a new nutrition plan and lose the extra pounds that had crept on with two pregnancies and the stress of working motherhood, because hearing it from the mouth of her little guy hit home in a way that other motivators never could. That’s a good and positive thing.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about a slightly different take on her story. What does it mean when your little one tells you something you don’t particularly want to hear? What if it’s the truth? What if it’s not?

How do we take the opinions and pronouncements of our 3 or 7 or 15-year-olds (or 25- year-olds, for that matter) and put them in proper perspective? How do we maintain healthy boundaries so our kids know that we’re in charge and are well-equipped to keep them healthy and safe, while at the same time  taking their thoughts seriously, especially when they’re critical of us?

Is “Mama, you’re fat,” different than “Mama, you smoke”? How about “Mama, I don’t like  you to drink wine,” or “Mama, those jeans are too tight,” or this knife through the heart, “Mama, I hate you.”

Consider this. “Mama, my friend says Fox News is way better than CNN, let’s watch it.”

What do you do or say when your child gives feedback you’d rather not have? When does honesty turn into criticism, and when does a child’s criticism of a parent become inappropriate? Does it matter if the criticism is deliberately hurtful or inadvertently hurtful, like in the story above?

Maybe it’s enough to respond with something like, “I appreciate that you shared your honest opinion with me. I’m going to take some time to think about that.” Or maybe it provides a teachable moment for a conversation about the power of words and how words can hurt even when you don’t mean them to.

When I was growing up (oh, how awful that sounds), preschoolers didn’t feel comfortable telling their mothers they were fat. Was that better? Worse?

Please let us know what feels right for your family.


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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