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Growing Concerns (07/22/2007)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
A parenting column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: My mother-in-law takes care of our 3-year-old daughter while we are at work, which is a great help to my husband and me. The problem is that she seems to equate food with love. She gives our daughter unlimited quantities of chocolate chip cookies, sweet rolls, candy, you name it. The truth is, they spend most of the day watching TV and eating treats. If our daughter only saw her grandma occasionally, I wouldn't worry so much, but this is five days a week and our little girl is chubby already. How can I handle this without offending my mother-in-law?

Answer: Your concern is very well founded. Early eating patterns have a long-lasting effect on a person's weight and general health. Heavy consumption of foods high in fat and sugar are especially troublesome, increasing the risk of health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, not to mention the physical constraints and emotional pain that often accompany obesity. And habits formed early in life can be hard to break.

You don't mention if your husband shares your concern, but since this situation involves his mother I would urge you to engage him in working with you to address the situation. Here are the steps I suggest you take:

" Arrange a time for you and your husband to talk to his mother without your daughter present. Tell your mother-in-law you know how much she loves her granddaughter -- and how much her granddaughter loves her. Assure her that you are grateful for her close involvement in your little girl's life.

" Tell your mother-in-law you have decided to make a concerted effort to get your daughter started on good eating habits that will help her grow up healthy. Say you hope she will work with you on this and then have her brainstorm with you about how to do this both at home and at her house. For example, agree to keep portions small and to serve heavy treats only occasionally. Think of fun, healthy alternatives to the rich snacks (for example, fruits arranged on a plate to make a smiling face, popsicles made of fruit juice diluted with water, or a colorful yogurt and cereal parfait). Visit your public library to find books with creative, child-friendly recipes for healthy eating.

" Let your mother-in-law know you understand that giving treats is one way of showing love. Then generate other ways she might show her granddaughter how much she loves her: reading favorite storybooks together; going to the park to play with other children; dancing together to music from grandma's younger days; drawing, painting or playing with play-dough; playing dress-up with old clothes. These activities are important in their own right because they are key ingredients for good mental development. And they will provide welcome relief from a steady diet of television.

With a sincere discussion about your shared love for your daughter, grandma hopefully will agree to join you in providing your daughter with a healthy diet and more varied activities. But if not, you may need to consider other alternatives for childcare, as difficult as that would be. (You could still make sure grandma and your daughter spend plenty of time together on weekends or perhaps even continue to spend one weekday together.) For many reasons, a 3-year-old needs to be in an environment that provides appropriate nourishment for body and mind. I hope you, your husband, and his mother will be able to work together to be sure your daughter's developmental needs are well met.  


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