Picture an overweight kid. He’s just slightly over-plump for his age, but because of his eating habits, he’s on the fast-track to middle-aged heart disease.
Popular culture would have us believe there are only two ways to approach this topic with the child in question. The first is to take a page from the book of schoolyard bullies and ridicule them into feeling embarrassed, hoping a little tough love sets them on the right track. The second is to hug them close and tell them it’s all right, and anyone who cares that they’re overweight is a bad person, they’re perfect just the way they are.
It’s easy to understand the leap to either extreme.
On one hand, we feel it’s our job to share what knowledge we have, and if some hard knocks will get the kid on what we think is a better course in life, a little antagonization might be just what the doctor ordered.
On the other hand, we don’t want anyone to judge our children, friends, siblings, by how they look, because they are wonderful people. Living healthily is difficult, so screw anyone who tells them to change. We think they’re great and that’s all that should matter.
Unfortunately, both of these approaches can be more harmful than helpful.
Killing a kid’s confidence and happiness can have a negative impact on their life, and can actually change them for the worse. It may also result in their perpetuating the hazing ritual, finding anyone in their life who isn’t picture-perfect physically and harassing them into the same self-deprecative depression.
Trying to protect a child from criticism can have equally negative consequences. There are people championing the idea that it’s okay to be obese because you’re perfect just the way you are. The people behind this idea mean well, but their support can lead to a sad reality for those who grow up thinking they can be as unhealthy as they like without suffering negative consequences for doing so. Additionally, it can lead to a sense of victimization: anyone who tries to help them become healthier in the future may seem like a villain because they aren’t handling them with the same kid gloves as others have in the past.
Instead of harassment or coddling, a more ideal solution would be a combination of the two opposites. Focus on the idea that being healthy is good, but remove the personal critique from the equation. They aren’t obese because they are bad people and they won’t be better people if they work out more and eat healthier. They’re good people either way, but they’ll live a lot longer, as good people, if they treat their bodies better.
I’ve focused on the idea of obesity for this argument because it’s a common and easy to understand issue, but this applies to many things, not just physical health. Ignorance, for example, is another stigmatized topic that can easily sway one way or the other.
Rather than pushing for extremes, aim for the middle. Only then will we be more capable of supporting those we love while also helping them become better versions of themselves while encouraging them to do the same for us.
Update: February 23, 2017
I write a lot about middle grounds and how difficult it can be to find them and adhere to them in our thinking. This is especially visible in things like politics, but in health and wellness, too, it’s shaky ground to even bring up, for some.
Which is unfortunate, because extremes to typically result in a lot more harm than good. Few are the citizens who actually believe everything their political party of choice says, yet we’ll defend that party to the death if someone else should criticize them for any reason. Our tribal mentalities, which can be so helpful in some ways, really do hurt us here. It’s a lonely path for those who seek the gray areas in between extremes, but it’s also often the only honest, legitimate place to be.