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The Right Way to Talk to Your Kids About Weight

Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

Correct answer: not at all.

Remember how much fun it was when your parents would talk to you about your weight? No, you absolutely don't. Because 10 out of 10 parents and kids agree: Parents talking to kids about weight is the opposite of fun. Well-intentioned parents doing their best to protect their kids from the health effects and the social stigma of obesity can say things that—instead of inspiring their much-loved child to skip the Skittles—can cause him or her a world of hurt.

Happily for all of us, Jerica Berge, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have finally identified the best way to talk to your child about weight: Don't mention it. At all. Ever.

That's right. When it comes to talking to your kids about weight, the experts' consensus is this: Zip it. "When parents focused on weight with comments like 'You're looking heavy' or 'You shouldn't eat that; you don't want to get fat,' that language was actually associated with a higher rate of obesity," Berge says.

And when a child's parents encouraged him or her to diet, that child was at higher risk for binge-eating, low self-esteem, and, in the case of overweight kids, depression. Diet talk from dads was particularly damaging and was linked to both weight gain and eating disorders.

What can you say to steer your kids in the direction of healthy eating habits? Avoid mention of weight, size, or shape. "Focus on health, strength, and growth, and talk about improving the family's health rather than singling out any individual for shaming," advises Berge. "Try phrases like 'Our family eats healthy foods so we can have strong bones and muscles."'

And Berge recommends serving those healthy foods at family meals. There is solid evidence that regular family meals—even just two to three a week—are one thing that frazzled, weight-worried parents can do for their kids to significantly reduce their risk of weight struggles, not just in childhood but into adulthood. They provide what Berge calls "an enduring protective effect," the research equivalent of a warm security blanket for worried moms and dads.