COLUMN: Toddlers and the power of words

Having a daughter reinforces the need to be positive not just in my relationships with others, but toward myself

My daughter has taken to saying “Elise not feeling well” once or twice a day.

At first, my husband and I wondered if she was actually sick. But when we asked what was wrong, she’d either point at an old scab well on its way to being healed or say “forty minutes,” which really didn’t make any sense.

Then we realized that for the past few weeks I’ve been making the daily run to the bathroom thanks to the nausea and vomiting that can accompany pregnancy. I’ve also been tired and napping more frequently, taking advantage of my husband being home during summer break.

Whenever I rush off to the aforementioned toilet, Elise asks dad, “Where’s mom going?” and dad will say something along the lines of, “Mom isn’t feeling well. But don’t worry, she’ll be better soon. Mom will be back in a few minutes.”

Ah yes. “A few minutes,” “forty minutes.”

Parents of toddlers often comment that they need to watch what they say in front of their ever-observant offspring. But Elise “not feeling well” has really made it hit home that their imitation goes well beyond four-letter words that we don’t want repeated.

Obviously we try to role model polite and respectful social behavior, healthy relationships, and a healthy lifestyle. I’m surprised by how intuitive she seems to be when it comes to my emotional state as well – and how much my mood affects her. We really can’t hide much from them, can we?

Since our discovery I’ve been trying to be more discreet with my brief trips, and my husband uses his talent for amusing distractions.

But Elise’s observation and imitation led me to think about another related issue: body image.

My bouts of “not feeling well” will pass as this pregnancy progresses, but once the baby is born there’s a pretty good chance that, like many women, I’ll “not feel well’ about my post-pregnancy body (once the first few zombie-like months have past).

Having a daughter reinforces the need to be positive not just in my relationships with others, but toward myself. No complaining aloud about my softer areas or how unflattering an outfit may be. No talking about my “ideal weight,” how many pounds to go, or how pregnancy has irreparably changed certain features.

As moms we worry about the influence of Disney princesses, small-waisted dolls and pop stars on our daughters’ feelings of self-worth, but we should take a closer look at how we talk about ourselves.

USA Today posted a story from The Indianapolis Star last week featuring an interview with a clinical director of the Mayo Clinic’s eating disorder program.

“Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image,” Dr. Leslie Sim is quoted as saying. “Even if a mom says to a daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.”

It’s easy to tell Elise how beautiful, bright, kind and funny she is. It’s harder to tell that to ourselves.

But maybe if we all shut up about our perceived deficiencies, the negative comments in our heads will stop as well.

And then our daughters will see that we really are feeling well, and they’ll feel well too.

 

Kristine Salzmann is a former Black Press reporter and mom to two-year-old Elise. She writes monthly for The Leader on parenting issues.

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