We were driving the other day
when my mind got blown. Kids never fail to freak me out in all kinds of
Here's what went down.
I was talking to my daughter, Violet, 6, and
my son, Henry, 4. They were sitting in the backseat alongside their
little bro, Charlie, who is 1-½ and somehow our never-ending car
conversation took a turn down the body-image road.
We passed a farm field and there was a fat
groundhog standing out there, staring at the sweltering sun, probably wishing he
was an otter or a trout or something. We all saw him at the same time. And then
just like that: boom. The beautiful 6-year-old mind behind me came
"Dad, there's a girl in my class at camp who
has big teeth, like a groundhog," Violet announced.
"Oh yeah?" I said. "Well, you know, you don't
ever actually SAY that to her, right? I mean, you wouldn't TELL her that you
think she has teeth like a groundhog, right?"
Right away, looking in my mirror, I watched
Violet processing my words and I could see that swift flash of confusion that
crosses a kid's face when they're suddenly thrown off their game by adult logic.
It's a strange and magnificent thing to witness, any parent will tell you that,
like scooping real lightning out of the evening sky in a butterfly net.
"I wouldn't say it mean, Dad," Violet told me.
Then Henry chimed in.
"I would say it like, 'Hey, I really like your
I smiled, but only on the inside.
I had a
serious job to do here.
So much of being a parent is thinking fast on
the fly; you have these times when you HAVE to be on your toes, when the next
words you say might be the words that stick and echo across your own kids'
minds and consciences for a long time to come, even long after your dead and
"Well," I started in, "I like where you're
coming from Henry, but here's the thing, right ..." I was not
at all sure of what the hell my next thought was yet.
In the rearview, I saw two rapt faces. I don't
always have that, people. This was my moment to shine—my big chance at
connecting with my own kids on a subject that means a lot to me and is
important in life. I was feeling the heat of
So, I did what I had to do.
I dug it up.
I dug out the fat kid.
I brought 11-year-old Serge back from suburban
"Listen, you guys, I want to tell you something
I haven't told you yet."
They were all eyes back there, mouths drooping
open with the curiosity. I had them. I had to pounce.
"When I was a kid, I was pretty heavy."
"Like heavy like a cow?" Violet asked.
"No, not quite like a cow, kiddo, but I had—I
was—ummm … My body was bigger than a lot of the kids in my class at school. And
bigger than a lot of my friend's bodies, too."
It's weird for me to go back to this stuff
now. Being an overweight kid—not morbidly obese, mind you, but on the far side
of "husky"—pretty much throughout all my childhood had an effect on me. A
serious one, too. As in, not a day goes by that I don't remember feeling ashamed and sad about my body.
I hated being fat. But I was fat. I had to walk through a lot of my life as a young
boy hating who I was. And as much as it sucks to say this: I hated myself.
I wouldn't wish that on any kid in this world.
The self-consciousness that comes from feeling
twisted inside about your physical appearance is pure rabies, man. Once it kicks
in, it attacks your brain and it latches onto your heart like
a savage jungle worm.
I want them to be OK with who they are so badly. I love them so frickin' much. I want them to be kind and cool people.
There, in our Honda, I was conjuring up my own bastard ghost. I wasn't
expecting that. But maybe it could be a good thing. Maybe all those pizza puffs and potato chips from my younger days
were about to pay off somehow.
"I was fat and I hated being fat." I just said
it. I just needed to say it. To hell with tiptoeing around.
"Why were you fat, Dad?" Henry asked, and in
"Dude, I don't even know. I ate too much bad
food and I guess I didn't exercise my body enough, who knows? But the main
thing is that even when another kid is fat or has different skin or maybe has
teeth that aren't perfect, no matter what it might be, we never pay attention
to that, OK?"
I could see them getting excited in their
faces as they were really connecting some mind dots.
"The thing is, you guys, it's perfectly normal
to notice that people may look different than us, but it feels so much better
in our own hearts and in their hearts too if we do our noticing quietly in the
beginning and then mostly never think about that stuff again, you know what I
"Oh yeah! I know what you mean! You mean we
just talk to ourselves if they are fat or have groundhog teeth, but we don't
say it to them or hurt their feelings!"
"Exactly!" I answered. "And also, and maybe
this is the most important thing, but when I was young and I was really sad
inside my heart because I was a lot heavier than most of my friends, I really
wanted people to like me. But a lot of times I felt like they didn't like me,
even when they probably DID like me, because I had convinced myself that my body
wasn't worth liking at all."
My kids looked sad in the mirror. Sad for me,
maybe. Sad for their Dad. It hit me in the guts.
"Dad, I know what to do when you are with a
kid like that—you don't do anything or say anything, right?" Henry said.
"Yeah, man. That's right. That's right.
Because guess what? Inside our bodies is where all the magic happens, dude.
Behind our skin is where the love gets made and that's where the good stuff
lives, you know? Skin, teeth, eyeballs, they're all just like your Hulk
costume. You put it on, but the real you is always underneath."
Henry smiled then. He looked out the window
and kept smiling too. Violet stared straight into my eyes in the mirror.
Her heart is gigantic.
I want them to be OK with who they are so
badly. I love them so frickin' much. I want them to be kind and cool people.
I want them to never hurt inside like I did
when I was a kid. And I want them to never hurt anyone else.
I feel like they get the idea.
That's all we can do as parents. Let them know
where real hurt is born and start out by teaching
them that kindness is everything. Then, when it comes time to deal with their image
in the mirror, maybe they'll already have this built-in kindness machine
ripping away inside of them, you know?
And, hopefully, right when they might need it
the most, they can just turn that idea around and aim right back at their
This article is part of mom.me's collaboration with The Representation Project and their #buildconfidence campaign. Research shows that body image issues originate well before adolescence and that parents are pivotal in instilling confidence in their children. #BuildConfidence campaign celebrates and empowers parents, caregivers and mentors who model positive self-esteem and body image. Share this article and tag #buildconfidence to help us spread the word!