I didn’t find out the sex of either of my children before they were born. I didn’t want my welcoming of them to be clouded by any societal notions of how to parent a boy or a girl. When people would ask me if I knew what I was having, I’d respond, "A human, I hope.” And even though I can’t follow a uniform parenting style all the time with them, I can still instill the same values in my two very different children. As women, we work hard to raise body confident daughters, but we should also consider ways moms can teach body positivity to their sons. The burden shouldn’t solely be on our girls to improve society’s treatment of women's bodies.
With so many outside cues fostering insecurity about our bodies, it’s so important that I, as a mom, cultivate a positive outlook for both my kids. I have to resist vocalizing my disappointment in my appearance when I don’t like how my clothes fit, because it truly is a waste of energy and it is truly setting an unhealthy example. I don’t want to be teaching my kids that they should feel less than great about their healthy bodies; no matter what size, shape, or ability they have.
Since I identify as female, I’ve been really focused about guiding my daughter to a place of body positivity. However, it’s just as important for my son to be confident, respectful, and nonjudgmental about his or anyone else’s appearance. So, I’ve tried to put into practice the following seven ways moms can teach body positivity to their sons.
Ask What They Did In Gym Class
When my 5-year-old picked up his older sister’s hula hoop and kept it swinging around his hips, I was shocked. In a good way! I had no idea he had learned that skill in kindergarten, but it was part of the curriculum in gym class. It shattered the girly-girl image I had in my head of hula hooping. Why couldn’t a boy do that? I thought the kids mostly ran around and learned some basic body mechanics in early education physical education class. I was so wrong! Now I ask both my kids what they’re doing in gym, and ask them to show me. I’m impressed with the new things their bodies are learning to do. It’s a terrific foundation to further grow their positive relationship with their bodies.
Point Out Differences In Our Sameness
My son was insistent that Captain Phasma, from The Force Awakens, was a guy. He knew the actress playing the character was female, but couldn’t let go of the notion that a storm trooper couldn't be a woman. I spent a rather frustrated car ride explaining to him that men and women could look similar on the outside, and it's what’s inside that really defines them. Literally: Captain Phasma may have the armored physique my young son has been conditioned to believing is typically male (#thanksnothanks to all superhero movies) even though the voice emitted from the costume he identified as typically female-sounding. It’s confusing, but I think he finally came around to the idea that a person’s body doesn’t tell their whole story.
Don’t Dismiss His Curiosity About Your Body
I don’t know about you, but I get zero privacy in the bathroom. It’s like my kids wait until I’m in there to rush to tell me the very important thing they absolutely must share at this very second. So, my kids see me naked pretty much every day. They have questions (no surprise, when they stand crotch-high in front me), and I answer matter-of-factly, like I’m reading from a kid’s biology book. I try to keep my answers simple and deal with the awkward silence as my son digests the fact that I have parts inside of me that can house a baby and he, well, does not. Sometimes there are follow-up questions (“So a baby comes out of that hole?”) and sometimes there’s a nod and he’s moved on to other business. If I discourage him from asking questions about the female body, how will I know he’s getting the right answers later on?
Take What Sounds Like An Insult In Stride
My son loves my “squishy belly.” I hate that I have this squishy belly because, well, jeans. Admittedly, it takes me a second to realize he just complimented me. He loves something about me: the fluff of my middle is soothing to him, as he cuddles up against me. Struggling to love my body becomes easier when I see how it comforts him. So, instead of hating my "squishy belly," I vocalize my thanks to him and show him I value knowing that my body is appreciated, even if it’s not for reasons I’ve been conditioned for most of my life to believe are important (like the size on the label of said jeans).
Don’t Make “Fat” A Bad Word
I grew up hating my body, and working excessively to get it to conform to some kind of “ideal” shape. “Fat” was a bad word; I didn’t want it to describe me. Now that I’m raising kids, I don’t want them to think certain words come loaded with negative connotations. “Fat,” “skinny,” “disabled” are all terms we can use, but we need to use them correctly. “A person who is fat,” and “a person with a disability” are “people-first” terms, meaning, we see a person for exactly that: a person above all else. Any other attributes are parts of that person, not the singular defining characteristic.
All parents are horrified when their little kid points to another person on the street and exclaims, “That lady is fat!” but that is because we are bringing our own baggage to the word. We need to be quick to point out that we are all different shapes and sizes with varying abilities. “Yes,” I tell my surprisingly loud child after he labels someone's size to me. “We are all different sizes. And we all want to be happy.” It’s always going to be awkward when you feel your child is pointing out differences. I just try to steer him back to the similarities and tweak his perspective so he sees all people want the same things in life: to feel loved and be happy.
Be Comfortable With His Nudity
Toddlers are inherently nudists. As he’s gotten older, my son has never shown enthusiasm towards putting on clothes. He is a free spirit, parading around naked before (and after) his baths. I mean, he’s not even six years old, and modesty is not something anyone is born with. I’m totally comfortable with my kids stripping down, in the name of comfort (especially since we had a few hot days before our air conditioners were installed). But I realize that not everyone is comfortable with the idea. I do encourage modesty outside our home, but I couch it in the idea of, “Not everyone wants to see naked bodies outside their houses.” It’s about respecting shared space. I don’t want my son growing up with the idea that nudity is shameful, but I do need him to realize that other people may have other thoughts on it and, outside of our own apartment, he needs to be respectfully discreet and not do his signature nudie cutie butt dance (even though you can't possibly not love it!).
Choose The Wording Of Your Compliments Carefully
I have to catch myself if I’m about to remark how “strong” or “tough” my little guy is, after he adorably demonstrates some kind of martial arts move he learned in Karate class. I don’t want him to feel that, as a male human, he must build up muscles and get big. What I can do, is admire the use of whatever it is he’s got. I can compliment him on his focus getting through a set of push-ups. I can call out his quick reflexes when he shows me how to block a kick. What I won’t do, however, is commend him for being physically powerful. Maybe the less we can all emphasize that trait (unless you’re a professional body builder), the less aggression we can encourage, and the more compassion we can foster. Imagine being the little guy or girl, and never having to worry about someone beating you up? That will only happen if we can take the pressure off our little boys to have to grow up “big and strong.”