My youngest daughter turned four this March, a fact that surprises most people when they see her for the first time. Toddlers tower over her, and her legs barely reach the pedals of the tricycle that our kindergartener outgrew years ago. Yes, she’s small for her age.
Let’s be realistic: I’m only 5 feet 2 inches myself, and my husband is no giant. Our children were never destined for basketball stardom or the state rowing championship. But our youngest isn’t small only because of genetics: she was born several weeks early after a complicated pregnancy and spent over a month in the neonatal intensive care unit. Fortunately, she didn’t face serious complications. In order to come home, she simply needed to get bigger – and she did, weighing in at a whopping four pounds once she was discharged.
Fast forward to today, and “getting bigger” is still the overriding goal when it comes to feeding our daughter. It is the sacred mantra my husband and I hear beating in our heads whenever our family sits down for a meal. If our oldest daughter decides not to eat, we sigh, but it ends there. With our youngest, we don’t feel we have the luxury of letting it go.
Instead, the way we nourish our youngest daughter has become the ultimate exercise in strategic thinking, designed to get her to consume as many calories as possible. Protein and fats take center stage in her meals and snacks, and whole milk is a staple in our household. I make animal-shaped sandwiches and pancakes cut out like snowflakes, generously topped with butter. My husband has become an expert in preparing protein-packed meals, sneaking almond butter into smoothies, and strategically serving the ground beef and cheese before the lettuce and tomatoes on taco night. We’ve even been known to snatch the carrots off her plate so she has no choice but to gravitate to the higher-calorie options.
When our daughter eats a decent amount, we all breathe easier and high five each other across the table for a job well done. When she refuses, leaping from her chair for the seventh time to go play with toys, peace rapidly dissolves and the dinner table becomes a power struggle where no one wins.
“I’m full,” she announces, after two bites of toast, some blueberries or a sliver of cheese.
“You are not,” I respond, taking her into my lap and aiming a forkful of food at her mouth, trying to cover the desperation in my voice.
Sensing we are losing the battle, my husband and I use all the tools at our disposal. We coax, bargain, and wheedle.
“Just three bites, c’mon sweetie, you like this stuff!”
“If you eat one more piece of cheese, you can go play with your toys.”
“Dada would be very happy if you would finish just one half of your sandwich.”
It’s possible that our approach is horribly wrong. Eating therapist and author Ellyn Satter maintains that once you’ve presented a healthy and balanced plate of food to your child, your job is done. Only your child can decide if, and how much, he or she will eat.(1)
As much as I agree with this logic, I worry that without our finagling, pleading, maneuvering and planning, our girl would wither away to a mere shell of her already petite self. On the rare occasions we’ve tried to be hands-off and not force the issue of her barely half-eaten meal, inevitably we can’t help but micromanage the situation, running back to the kitchen after bath time to prepare a hasty snack.
It’s not just mealtime that reminds us how important nutrition is when it comes to our youngest daughter, and how badly we want to get it right. It’s every visit to the pediatrician, when our daughter steps on the scale or lines up against the measuring tape and we hold our breath, waiting to see the final sum, the result of all our tears, sweat, and frustration. It’s the casual comments from strangers, and even friends and family, who can’t help but notice her stature.
“Oh, she’s such a peanut!”
“Well, hello, baby! Aren’t you adorable?”
Our daughter scowls when people look at her and call her “baby,” as if she suspects they’re not taking her seriously. I don’t blame her.
When people draw attention to my daughter’s size, I feel heartbroken and guilty that my body couldn’t nourish her fully during the pregnancy. But I can’t let those negative feelings color the way I parent her today, because those could have a lasting impact.
Ellen Frankel offers a powerful reminder of how parents’ attitudes regarding physical stature can impact a child’s self-esteem. An author and eating disorder therapist who is 4 feet 8 ½ inches tall, Frankel has shared her experience growing up as a short child with loving parents who were very concerned about her height. During the teenage years, Ellen’s mother would prepare daily high-protein breakfasts, and measured her daughter’s growth every month against the garage door, making a pencil mark that never got any higher. Today, Ellen still remembers the mark, calling it a “black spot that I associated with failure despite my successes.”(2)
In a society that often presents mixed messages about food, nutrition and appearance, I’m still trying to find the right balance in the way I approach these issues with my own children. I know that I want my daughters to grow up with a healthy, positive attitude toward food, to think of it as fuel for the fun activities they want to accomplish. I want them to enjoy a little bit of everything as they explore and develop their own palates.
But most of all, I want them to know intrinsically that their value doesn’t depend on their physical size or appearance. Life is not about what their bodies can’t do, but what they can do.
I think about the role models who can support this message, like the Olympian gymnasts who have nerves of steel and strong muscles to match. I smile when I think of Yoda, the small and powerful Jedi Master who famously asked, “Judge me by my size, do you?”
It will always be tough for me to resist the impulse to control my daughter’s growth. But I know mealtimes will be much more peaceful if I can accept this fact: So long as she’s healthy, whatever size my daughter is really does not matter.
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(1) Satter, Ellyn. How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much. Boulder: Bull Publishing Company, 1987.
(2) Frankel, Ellen. Beyond Measure: A Memoir About Short Stature & Inner Growth. Nashville: Pearlsong Press, 2006.