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Positive Discipline emphasizes five key criteria that redefine discipline as a means of fostering positive development and empowering children to thrive.


Respectful and encouraging




Unlike punishment, which may yield short-term compliance, positive discipline focuses on long-term solutions that promote lasting behavioral changes and positive development


Respect, concern for others, problem-solving, accountability, contribution, cooperation


Reminds us of their capabilities too!

While these criteria form the foundation of Positive Discipline, it's essential to consider their broader implications, including their intersection with body liberation and privilege.

Positive Discipline strategies, such as setting limits with empathy and fostering open communication, can contribute to creating environments where all children feel valued and respected, regardless of their body type or identity.

However, it's crucial to recognize that implementing Positive Discipline effectively may present unique challenges for families facing systemic barriers, such as poverty, discrimination, or trauma.

As practitioners of Positive Discipline, it's vital to approach our work with humility, cultural sensitivity, and a commitment to equity and social justice. This includes acknowledging our privileges and biases, actively listening to marginalized voices, and adapting our practices to better meet the needs of all families.

By integrating Positive Discipline principles into parenting practices with an awareness of their intersectionality with body liberation and privilege, caregivers can contribute to raising children who are not only emotionally resilient and socially responsible but also affirming of diverse body types and identities.

For more information on Positive Discipline, refer to Jane Nelsen's books and resources.

I'm at a park with my nanny kids when a neighbor bikes past on a nearby road. One of the children comments on how slowly the neighbor rides. There is no right or wrong pace at which to engage in physical activity. "I wonder if the neighbor is as happy as I am that it's sunny with a breeze today," I say. "Feels so good to me to be outside." I want to create an environment of enoughness for this kindergartener while honoring that, so far for them, fast fast fast has always meant better, empowered. I want them to trust that slow can be empowering too.

This exchange made me think about how much parents' thoughts and behaviors around exercise and food may impact children's developing body image.

Body image is how a person sees themselves as well as how a person feels in and about their body. It is complex, and relates to their beliefs about bodies in general. Body image is not necessarily an accurate representation of how other people perceive one’s self, but is an internal, felt experience. According to Biolcati and colleagues (2020), body image is considered to be the mental portrait [from which] individuals form their physical selves. Cultivating a healthy sense of body image in children is linked to higher self-esteem and other health-promoting behaviors, while negative body image is correlated with lower self-esteem, depression, and disordered eating (Bologna, 2020). There are a variety of compounding factors that impact a child’s body image such as the media, peers, and parents/family.

Parents and families have a profound impact on their child’s body image, including the child's attitudes about body size and ability, starting at a very young age. Parents influence a child's body image and body size attitudes, in part, by their own expressions and evaluations about theirs and other people’s bodies. Negative body talk, which is characterized by “vocalizing self-deprecating evaluations of one’s own body in the presence of others,” has been shown to be a unique contributor to body image distress and disordered eating (Webb et al., 2015). Through negative body talk, parents and families may endorse unattainable body image ideals and align with the messages and images that children are exposed to in the media.

Negative comments parents say about themselves are detrimental for children to hear. I'm going to explain a little more about that, but first I want to say that if you identify with these examples, don't panic. You can make repairs with your child and make repairs with yourself at your own pace. It's okay to be where you are. Let's explore.

Negative comments serve as a model for children to subsequently critique themselves and others. Statements like, “I hate how I look in these jeans,” or “I shouldn’t have eaten all of those cookies,” are not as innocent as they might sound when you have young ears around. While it may seem harmless in the moment, when adults are critical of themselves, their bodies, or other people, children internalize these toxic messages and translate them onto themselves. For example, one study found that a child’s perception of their mother’s body dissatisfaction was correlated with the child’s body dissatisfaction in both girls and boys (Lowes & Tiggemann, 2003). Thus, if a parent engages in personal body image criticism, then the child begins to as well because it is normalized.

Not only do children begin to believe these "not good" messages about themselves, but they also ascribe these beliefs to their peers and to body size in general. Research has shown that children as young as four years old attribute negative characteristics to larger body sizes and positive characteristics to thinner bodies (Damiano et al., 2015). Additionally, research has found that preschoolers and young children aged five to eight years old prefer thin bodies, have biases against fatter bodies, experience body dissatisfaction, and are aware of dieting (Damiano et al., 2015). No one is born with these biases. They are learned. And quite effectively.

Negative body talk in the family can lead to less mindful eating, less body appreciation, and increased body dissatisfaction (Webb et al., 2018). When a child is taught, through seeing it modeled or otherwise, to focus on self-objectifying and self-degrading body assessments, it may disrupt the child's attention to their own internal bodily cues, undermining the mindful eating process. Additionally, hearing negative body talk reinforces the importance of the thin ideal and may imply that one’s body’s value lies in the way it looks. It overall conveys the message that bodies are something to be ashamed of and that it is normal to want your body to appear differently (Bologna, 2020).

The good news is that parents can also help to mitigate the impact of negative body talk on their children through the employment of certain protective factors. For starters, parents can help their children develop more positive body attitudes by working to unlearn their own previously held beliefs, biases, and behaviors around food, weight, exercise, and health. Parents can also work on the following:

  1. Develop a household rule of no negative self-talk in front of children.

  2. Employ a household rule of not commenting on others’ bodies. Instead, value aspects of the self that are not related to appearance or performance.

  3. Model a flexible relationship to eating and movement and find ways to ensure that movement is joyful and not punitive or related to how one’s body looks.

  4. Become a critical consumer of the media and challenge the media's messages with your children.

Parents are a tremendous resource and have the ability to help instill positive body image and self-esteem. While children will still be exposed to sociocultural influences, such as peers and the media, parents are in the unique position to counter the toxic messages their children receive around body image.

I'm at a park with my nanny kids when a neighbor bikes past on a nearby road. We’ve found some sturdy trees with low, thick branches to climb. The weight of my body is supported by the branch. I avoid the sap as I touch the texture of the bark beneath me. The kindergartener dangles from her knees, giggles, and we are enough.


Biolcati, R., Mancini, G., & Villano, P. (2020). ‘And yet I’m an adult now’. The influence of parental criticism on women’s body satisfaction/dissatisfaction during emerging adulthood. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1), 599-608. https://doi.org10.1080/02673843.2019.1699433

Bologna, C. (2020). What kids hear when you criticize your body in front of them. Huffington Post.

Damiano, S. R., Gregg, K. J., Spiel, E. C., McLean, S. A., Wetheim, E. H., & Paxton, S. J. (2015). Relationships between body size attitudes and body image of 4-year-old boys and girls, and attitudes of their fathers and mothers. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(16).

Lowes, J., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8(2), 135-147.

Webb, J. B., Rogers, C. B., Etzel, L., & Padro, M. P. (2018). “Mom, quit fat talking - I’m trying to eat (mindfully) here!”: Evaluating a sociocultural model of family fat talk, positive body image, and mindful eating in college women. Appetite, 126.

I can help you establish respectful feeding practices foundationally. I am not qualified to diagnose or treat specific conditions. If you are concerned that your child’s eating behaviors indicate physical or developmental concerns or the presence of an eating disorder, please contact a non-diet dietician, speech-language pathologist, or other appropriate specialist.

Dear Parents,

Let’s raise children to connect with and care for, not compare, their bodies.

There are lots of ways to do this, and many of them happen at the table. My child feeding practice is modeled after Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility with an Intuitive Eating influence.

  • Division of Responsibility* means the adults choose what's served, where it's served, and when it's served. The children choose if they eat it, and how much.

  • Mental health needs to be part of the feeding equation. Intuitive Eating** is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.

I encourage children to be scientists about their physical and emotional responses to food.

...all of which are welcomed and celebrated for the feedback they provide, including experiences that can be uncomfortable for parents and caregivers to witness, like when a child:

  • eats less than it seems like they need,

  • eats past fullness,

  • eats nutritionally unbalanced meals,

  • eats to soothe difficult emotions,

  • and other things our society typically villainizes.

The truth is that these are morally neutral experiences that come with having a body. Children are incredible at compensating for what adults perceive as imbalances at their next meal or over the course of several days.

Light gray background with “Nutrition,” followed by a crossed out definition, replaced with “developing a healthy relationship with food, nourishing the body and soul” and a small pink heart

Following authentic curiosity about food and how their body responds to it, without shame or judgement, lets children experience embodiment.

Embodiment means they are able to notice body cues and make individualized decisions about how to respond to those cues.

Their process of experimentation gives them answers to internal questions like: What does it feel like to eat [number] packages of gummy fruit snacks? Does it give me energy? What does the energy feel like? How long does the energy last? Do the gummies in the last pack taste the same as the first?

Children are better scientists about their bodies than adults are with all of our biases.

I often want to teach children intuitive eating skills, but they were born with them, so I know I mostly need to stay out of their way. When I get the impulse to offer instruction, I channel it toward a new recipe or way of presenting a food. I cut the apple into circles instead of wedges. I channel my impulse to DO SOMETHING toward the satisfaction factor.

Make Mealtimes Fun

Children learn best when they feel good, and that’s true for how they learn to relate to their body and how they nourish it. Most of the time, pleasant mealtimes aren’t a big show. Think about what a pleasant meal means to you.

By Sean Voelger. Figurine miniatures of 12 people are posed like they're harvesting a red bell pepper. The pepper has been sliced so there's no stem. Some of the miniatures stand on or inside the pepper. The others stand around. One miniature has a wheelbarrow, one has a lawn mower, one has a jackhammer. The background is white.

A pleasant meal starts with food you genuinely enjoy or are at least curious about. The food will be more enjoyable (hello, biology) if you’ve come to the meal hungry but not starved. You might have environmental preferences, like sitting outside on a nice day, having music on, having done a quick tidy up first -- things like that. Perhaps you're comforted and regulated by predictable but flexible routines.

You know what doesn’t make mealtimes pleasant? Having another person monitor what you serve yourself, offer unsolicited advice about nutrition, or talk up their personal food rules like they’ve found spiritual salvation.

So I don’t do that to kids.

But Nanny Sarah, if I don’t tell my children about the dangers of eating [food you’re scared of here], how will they avoid those dangers?!

Here’s the thing. Children are black and white thinkers. It’s not appropriate to teach them about nutrition because they haven’t developed the ability to adapt food rules in context. Labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy can cause harm to a child’s relationship with food in the short and long term.

By Little Star. Figurine miniatures of people in white jumpsuits painting the color onto donut sprinkles. Two of them have ladders and one has a long-handled roller brush. They are wearing white jumpsuits. There's another figurine crawling on the top to reach sprinkles in the middle. The donut and miniatures are in front of a pink background.

When foods are labeled as “sometimes foods,” what does the child believe about themselves when they want the “bad” food so, so much? The answer is devastating: they believe they themselves are bad.

Do you remember climbing on the counter to get into the treats cabinet?

Do you remember feeling like something was wrong with you?

Nothing was wrong with you. Functionally, our bodies produce more dopamine in response to foods that have been restricted, so the more something is restricted, the more coveted it’s going to become. This is a hard-wired survival mechanism to be honored, not feared.

Practice food neutrality. I have seen it in action with kids, and it looks like freedom. I’m no longer surprised when a child loves a vegetable, embraces a spicy food, or leaves some cake on their plate -- things we don’t expect of children. Actually, when given the freedom to explore, their tastes can be broad. Food neutrality offers freedom for adults too!

If a child eats all of one food item you’ve served and asks for more while there are still other foods on the table, do you serve more of that item?

It’s okay to have boundaries around labor. I'm not going to boil more eggs after I just did that -- you can if you want to -- but I'll grieve with the child. "I'm sad we're out of boiled eggs too. I was really enjoying them." I might use the information to decide to serve a higher quantity next time, or I might not.

By Olexandra. Miniature people. Miniature worker on top of an orange. Close-up view.

Most often I trust that, because I'm serving a variety of foods reliably throughout the day, the child will not be hungry and will overall have pleasant and satisfying associations with mealtimes.

What a relief that trust can be.

Real-life boundaries will occur with food. We can support children with whatever feelings come up for them in that.

My brothers and I used to split up crackers for the week into three bags, one for each of us, to ensure fair Goldfish distribution. Each of us would’ve gladly eaten the whole box otherwise and started a war. My dad most often chose not to buy more crackers. It's okay that he made that choice. Grocery budgets exist and, for many, are tight or even non-existent. We figured out a system that worked.

Compassion is key.

I look forward to continuing this conversation on child feeding as I continue to learn from all the amazing resources out there, grow, and recover from diet culture. Thank you for adventuring with me.


Nanny Sarah

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*The Division of Responsibility article linked mentions the “o” word, which is inherently stigmatizing, so this seems as good a time as any to clarify that The Ellyn Satter Institute is not HAES-aligned. I pledge (literally) my commitment to aligning with Health at Every Size principles in my parent coaching services, nanny services, and online content. I believe Ellyn Satter’s work is foundational in weight-neutral child feeding. I use a take what you like, leave what you don’t approach as I explore Satter Institute materials.

**I linked to the Feeding Littles tag for Intuitive Eating because I think there’s a lot of great info there for parents. I encourage you to check out the official Intuitive Eating website as well, with an emphasis on the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.

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