Labeling a child because of their size, eating behaviors, and activity levels can have impact for a lifetime.
Over my three decades of working with children and their families, I’ve witnessed countless scenarios where an adult labels their child. I’ve heard parents call their children lazy, picky, fat, and addicted to sweets.
As a professional pediatric dietitian, it’s awful, uncomfortable, and sad to hear these labels ascribed to a child.
Yet, I’ve heard doctors use words like “obese” and “overweight” in front of a child. Coaches call young athletes “lazy,” “slow,” and yes, even “useless.”
Size, Eating and Activity: Common Ways Adults Label Children
In my world of pediatric nutrition, many labels get tossed around about children. Most of these center around their size, eating behaviors, and their activity levels.
Labels about Size
In children with larger bodies, terms like “overweight,” “obese,” and even the word “fat,” which is being adopted in social media and fat activism circles as appropriate, are commonplace.
But labels about body size, for both larger and smaller bodies, may be considered stigmatizing.
According to a 2022 study in Pediatrics, youth dislike the words “obese,” “fat,” and “large.” These terms cause sadness, embarrassment, and shame.
Many studies have found that size bias, the unconscious and unknown perceptions we hold about children with larger and smaller bodies, and size stigma, actions like name-calling, labeling, and bullying of kids with larger or smaller bodies, are counterproductive to their physical health and emotional well-being.
Size stigma and size-related labels can change eating behaviors in children, and not for the better.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that weight labeling from family members is more strongly associated with disordered eating than from anyone else.
Children with smaller bodies are also labeled and the impact is negative.
It’s not uncommon to hear terms like “underweight,” “skinny,” and “short.” These can be hurtful because they are attached to biases such as skinny is weak, shorter is less important, or underweight is sick or unhealthy.
Any labels about a child’s size can be hurtful and harmful.
Labels about Eating Behavior
Not surprisingly, adults also label their children’s eating behaviors. The most prevalent label is “picky.” But “obsessed with food” and “addicted to sweets” are close behind.
These labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. A child who believes they are a picky eater may get to be picky.
They may believe they get a pass on trying new foods, and get different foods at mealtimes, perpetuating these behaviors.
One researcher believes that labeling a child a “picky eater,” “noncompliant,” or “fussy” serves to negatively influence the parent-child interaction at mealtimes, making them more stressful and counterproductive to good eating.
Being overly concerned with a child’s attraction to sweets or their proclivity to enjoy eating is yet another area where parents may label their children.
Children who are “obsessed with food” may simply be food-responsive, a term that describes the genetic tendency to approach food with more interest and enjoyment.
These children truly enjoy food, eating it, and anticipating and participating in all things related to food.
Although food can engage the reward center in the brain and increase the desire to eat or want certain foods, like sweets, food itself is not addictive.
In other words, children will not experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t have sweets for some time.
Instead of labeling a child as “picky” or “obsessed,” I encourage you to be curious about how your child responds and interacts with food.
Understanding this will enable you to set up a food environment that better supports them.
Labels about Activity Levels
Last, adults tend to label kids based on their activity level. The child who watches television or interacts with their social media account may be called “lazy.” The very active child may be called “hyper.”
While these behaviors may annoy or bother parents, it’s better to call the behavior what it is, rather than call the child the behavior.
For instance, “You’re a very active guy today!” instead of “You’re a hyper child.”
Or instead of “Your such a lazy kid,” you could say “You seem to need some more relaxation today. How are you feeling?”
Reframing words to describe a behavior you see rather than labeling your child the behavior will be more impactful and less hurtful in the long run.
Labels are Sticky
Like the college sticker placed on the back of a car, these labels are hard to remove.
When a child is given a label, it affects how they see themselves, and how they are treated, and may change what is expected of them.
A child may believe they are what they are labeled.
For example, a child may hear they are picky and believe they will always be. This may affect their food choices, and willingness to try new foods in the future, and in severe cases, negatively affect their nutritional status.
Labels influence the way a child is treated. When a child is called “lazy” or “slow,” they may not be given opportunities.
On the sports field, that may look like getting benched during games. In the classroom, they may not be chosen to participate in activities.
When kids are called “fat” or “obese,” they may be stigmatized (bullied) more easily, deemed “less than,” and given fewer opportunities.
Last, expectations for children may change when they are labeled. The “overweight” child may be expected to move less or less well, or thought of as less motivated than their “average-sized” peers.
No Child Wants to be Labeled
In first grade, I was called out for talking. I was called “a talker” in front of my classmates. To be talking out of turn was not a good thing in my Catholic school.
After that, I stopped talking in class. I kept my hand down, looked down when the class was asked a question, and slowly lost confidence in my communication skills.
You might not see this in me now, as I spend a lot of my time writing and speaking to groups. But, I’ve had to do a lot of personal work to overcome what I perceived as a negative quality about myself from a very young age.
When we label kids based on their size, eating behavior, and activity levels, they can get stuck believing that this is who they are, and that can negatively affect their self-worth, physical health, and emotional well-being.
Labeling a child about their size, eating or activity does more harm than good. Let’s not saddle children with these labels.