Q. My granddaughter — age 8½ and an only child — has wonderful parents, kind and loving aunts and a family that always gives positive attention to her. Consequently, she is easygoing, happy, charming, completely unspoiled and quite comfortable with adults.
Those are not her only accomplishments. This child, who has long blonde hair, is also beautiful; she is in the gifted and talented program at school and is even on the student council.
My granddaughter loves to eat, however, and though her parents only serve desserts on weekends, her belly now protrudes a little, much like a toddler’s belly, even though she has taken ballet for six years and has played T-ball for several years. The fat usually disappears in the warmer weather when more outside activities are possible, but two of her girlfriends recently told her that she has a fat belly. She told them that they had hurt her feelings, but her parents still are upset about it and want to tell the teacher what they did.
I am a retired therapist and have counseled her parents not to overreact, not to contact the teacher and not to draw attention to something that might pass quickly. But what can they do to help their daughter feel good about her body? And how can they make her realize that her intellect and her inner self are much more important than her body?
A.Your granddaughter’s little belly may simply be a sign of a growth spurt or a sign that she will be starting puberty at 9 or 10, as so many young girls do these days. It would be wiser, however, to see it as a red flag.
Childhood obesity often begins at 8 or 9, and the praise your granddaughter gets for her intellect or her inner self will never overcome the embarrassment she feels when her friends tell her that she weighs more than she should. And you can be sure that they will tell her, baldly and honestly. Children are seldom subtle at this age.
The parents shouldn’t tell their daughter that she is overweight, however, or tell her to go on a diet or even mention her weight. Instead, they should only keep healthful foods in the house, which will encourage her to make the same healthful choices that they make, for children imitate the people they love best, especially in the first 12 years.
If her parents snack a lot, however, they may not like to give up their chips and cookies, but they should. These kinds of foods have a lot of calories and only a little nutrition, and they can make almost any child gain weight, especially if she doesn’t get much exercise. And children need a lot more exercise than you might think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child needs at least 60 minutes of exercise seven days a week, even if it’s broken into 15-minute segments. This regimen not only keeps weight under control, but also helps to prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and many other conditions that are striking Americans, and at a younger and younger age.
T-ball and ballet classes are good for your granddaughter, but unless she’s playing ball or taking ballet for an hour every day, she’s not exercising enough. To get what she needs, she also should jump rope, shoot baskets, practice yoga, take karate, play Twister or go dancing, biking, hiking or on a brisk family walk every night after supper.
Chores can be helpful too. Your granddaughter will get in some good exercise if she washes the car — or the living room windows — or mows the lawn or rakes the leaves, and she’ll feel competent and proud of herself too.
Some of these exercises will strengthen her bones; some will make her more flexible; some will increase her endurance; and all of them will release endorphins, which will make her feel better and happier than she did before.
Exercise even makes children think better. Although many schools have cut back on recess or even cut it out entirely, some experienced teachers have their students stand up to answer a question in class or to identify a word that’s in upper case. These old-fashioned rituals may seem like mindless exercises, but scans show that even simple movements will activate the brain and make the mind work better.